Family ties

For most people — but I think especially for Japanese Americans, who tend to come from very defined communities bound together by geographic roots, generational branchings and, for many, the shared trauma of internment — meeting a stranger and finding out you’re somehow related isn’t such a big deal. It might be novel, or surprising, but it’s probably not a life-changing fact.

My wife Erin and I joke that in Denver, there are only a few Japanese families, and that everyone’s related, if not by blood then certainly by marriage. She plays the “six degrees of separation” game all the time when she meets a JA, and invariably finds that they have friends or family in common.

For Erin, whose nuclear family all live in the area as well as a huge number of extended family members, funerals and holidays are like frequent family reunions.

Not me.

My family has always lived in a community and family vacuum — an isolation chamber devoid of contact with relatives. We didn’t live within JA communities, didn’t grow up attending the Buddhist temple or Methodist church with other JA kids, and seldom saw or made contact with cousins, uncles and aunties. Even when my dad died, it was difficult tracking down the contact information for his brothers and sisters. Certainly, I’ve never had someone come up to me in Colorado and play “six degrees of separation” to see if we’re related.

But last weekend, I was in San Jose to attend the bi-annual Youth Conference for the Japanese American Citizens League (the APA civil rights organization for which I’m on the national board). Erin gave a workshop and the closing keynote speech for the conference, and I went to give a book reading and sign copies for the Japanese American Museum of San Jose. That’s when my little isolated world was shattered.

A young woman came up to me with a copy of my book, “Being Japanese American.” She explained she didn’t buy it at the reading, but brought it with her. She had moved to California recently from Hawaii, and her mother had sent her the book. And, she added, her mother told her she was related to me.


Let me give you the back story first:

I’ve written about my search for my family’s roots, and focused on my dad’s side of the family. I learned about my grandfather, and how he had emigrated from Japan and ended up in Hawaii (I never quite figured out whether he was an “illegal alien” of his day). In my research, I was told that my grandfather had married Tomeno Hanzawa, who was a “picture bride” who came from Japan and married my grandfather, Kyutaro Asakawa. By the late 1930s, the couple had eight children, including my dad George Hisayuki Asakawa, who was born in 1933.

The story I was told, and that I’ve written so far, was that my grandfather decided for unexplained reasons to move the entire family back to Japan in 1940, a year and a half before Pearl Harbor was bombed and war declared between the U.S. and Japan. And that my grandmother, for unexplained reasons, died suddenly — literally on the eve of the move back to Japan.

That is the sum total of what I had known and written about my grandmother, Tomeno Hanzawa. The Asakawas moved to Japan a month later with my oldest aunt, Miki, serving as the matriarch for her siblings, and my father’s story of life during wartime took over from there.

But Joy Tanaka, the young woman who came up to me in San Jose last week, changed all that, and opened a huge door into more insights about my dad’s earliest years and his family history. She told me that her great-grandfather was my grandmother’s brother, and that there was a Hanzawa family reunion planned for September in Hawaii.

I was dumbstruck by two things. First, that the Hanzawa family had known about the Asakawas enough to know that the dude who wrote this book is related to them. And second, that if there were Hanzawas in Hawaii, it was likely that my grandmother was not a picture bride like I had been told, but that she and her family were already living in Hawaii when she met my grandfather.

This last theory turned out to be true. The next day I began a wonderful e-mail correspondence with my second cousin, Joy’s mother Aileen Moriwake, and over the weekend I got to speak briefly to Aileen and a handful of other relatives who were meeting to plan the reunion.

Aileen has already filled in a lot of information that I didn’t even know I was hungry for. It turns out I’m starved for family history, and Erin and I are planning to attend the reunion in September. I’ll get to meet one older auntie who can tell me about Tomeno Hanzawa and maybe tell me what happened to her. I’ll get to see a building that my grandfather, a successful contractor in Honolulu in the pre-war years, built. And, I’ll get to see where my father and his family lived… something that even thinking about moves me deeply.

The connection with the Hanzawa clan has raised a lot of questions for me about why exactly my family has never been very close to anyone. My mom’s kind of close to her family, all of whom are in Japan. But my dad’s side of the family has been practically a cipher in my life.

Was it my dad’s family’s trauma, with Hawaii-born and Americanized children stuck in Japan and having the secret police keep close tabs on them? Was it because my dad and his siblings were teased as “American spies” by the other children when they attended Japanese schools? Was it because one of my uncles was drafted into the Japanese army and only returned years after the war, psychically scarred by his experience as a POW in Russia?

These are questions I hope to answer in the months to come, as I meet this whole branch of family that I didn’t even know existed.

More to come. Same bat-time, same bat-channel….

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One Response to Family ties

  1. Kenbo Ishibashi says:

    8/29/07 Tokyo weather: overcast, warm, HUMID
    Hello Gil,
    I am sure that you will have a very interesting and enjoyable time meeting your relatives in Hawaii, as well finding out about many things about your family.
    Looking forward to reading all about your visit and discoveries!
    Best regards,

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