Digging For Roots: Swallows Return

These columns, about the search for my family roots and my father’s hidden past, were originally written and posted online during October and November, 1998. Because they’re in a series, I’ve decided to compile them together into one story. I hope you enjoy them!

I’ve also posted both my father’s family photos and a page of photographs from the 1994 trip that this series covers. I thought about placing the images within this page, but I like having this as text-only — it loads faster.



One of the rewards of being a Nikkei-jin, or someone of Japanese descent living outside the country, is the opportunity to dig not just into the recent immigrant history of my family, but also the deeper history of Japan. I feel lucky — everybody has roots, but not everybody gets to indulge a passion for them. And the more I dig into my roots, the more I realize the richness of the soil I’ve sprouted from.

Still, I took this fertile family tree for granted for a long time. Because I spent my early childhood in Japan and have vivid memories, and because I’ve met my mother’s family from the northern part of Japan, I felt like I “knew” my roots.

But I only knew one branch.

Although I love history and I’ve always appreciated all things Japanese, it never occurred to me to find out about my father’s family until he was diagnosed with cancer. He never talked about his childhood. I took it for granted that he and his seven brothers and sisters were all born and raised in Hawaii, and he met my mother in Japan when he was stationed there during the Korean war.

So I was shocked by his answer when I finally asked him, “So dad, what was it like at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

It turns out that in July of 1940, my grandfather suddenly decided to move his entire family back to Japan. My father, who was 8 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked, lived in Fukui, a western city near the Sea of Japan, during the war. Two weeks before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Fukui was firebombed, and my dad’s family escaped to the countryside, to a village named Kowata a few kilometers outside of Fukui.

My father never spoke of his years in Japan; not to my mom, and not to me and my brothers. Perhaps it’s because he didn’t really have a childhood — I’ve since learned from my aunts the hardships of life in Japan during the war, and the special hardships faced by a family that had recently arrived from the land of the enemy. The Asakawa children were taunted as American spies by other kids, and the Kempeitai, or Secret Police visited weekly to keep tabs on the family. My father was sent out to the fields after school to capture grasshoppers, which were ground up for protein and sprinkled on rice bought through the black market. He learned fluent Japanese because he couldn’t be caught speaking English in public — so they sang Glenn Miller songs in hushed tones in the house.

My father’s silence about his childhood wasn’t because he hated it there — my dad chose to stay in Japan after the war, while most of his brothers and sisters returned within a few years to the U.S. Perhaps it was just part of the secrecy he adopted when he joined the U.S. Army during the Occupation, and he served with the Counter Intelligence Corps as an interrogator fighting communists during the first tests of the Cold War.

Or perhaps he was simply compelled to leave the war years behind, put away on a dark shelf like an old hat he never wanted to wear again.

He wouldn’t be the first Japanese (or Japanese American, who were tight-lipped about their Internment experience for a generation) to never discuss the war years. My mother to this day is reluctant to relive her childhood during the war (her hometown, the Hokkaido fishing town of Nemuro, was also firebombed in the weeks leading up to Hiroshima). When prodded, she’ll describe the final days before Japan’s surrender, when she and other school girls trained with bamboo spears, preparing for the coming hand-to-hand battle to the death with the invading Americans. She describes these scenes, and shrugs as if they’re not important.

My mom has a perfect snippet of Zen-like wisdom to explain her lack of nostalgia about this period in her life: “The past is passed; I only care about the future.”

For me, though, the past is part of my future. There’s so much to learn about who I am, and what I believe. I’m digging for that knowledge, and hoping I’ll be a better person for the effort.


I never got the chance to hear from my father about his years as a youth in Japan.

George Hisayuki Asakawa was 7 when he moved to Fukui from Honolulu in 1940, and 13 when Emperor Hirohito read his surrender announcement over Japanese radio. He went to work for General MacArthur’s Occupation forces as a houseboy when they rolled into Fukui. When he was 17, he lied about his age and joined the U.S. Army. After miltary life, he worked for the Federal government all his career, and he was one month short of 60 years old when cancer claimed his life in 1992.

He died before I got around to taping an oral history — I just could never bring myself to bring the video camera. It seemed like an acknowledgment of finality.

Since then, I’ve done a lot of research about Japan before and during the war, and during the U.S. Occupation from 1945-’52.

And in the fall of 1994, I traveled to Fukui-shi in Western Japan and went to the city hall there. My goal was to get a copy of the Asakawa family records, just to get an idea of the family tree.

Most of what I knew of my dad’s family, I learned from interviews with two of my aunts. My grandfather, Kyutaro Asakawa, was a stowaway on a ship sailing from Yokohama to San Francisco in the early 20th century. A carpenter from Fukui, he had decided his riches awaited him in America. He may or may not have gone to San Francisco (it depends on who I ask) but he ended up in Hawaii, and by all accounts, he was a wealthy, successful Honolulu contractor by the 1930s.

In 1938 he sent my grandmother (the daughter of a family running a competing construction company) and my youngest aunt to Fukui with money to visit relatives and pay for a torii gate at a shinto shrine near the family’s hometown.

In 1940, he suddenly decided to take the entire family back to Japan, but my grandmother died literally on the eve of the trip. After a month’s delay, the family made the trip with my oldest aunt, who had been accepted to enter the University of Hawaii, as a surrogate mother to her younger siblings. The oldest son stayed in Hawaii — he had enlisted in the U.S. Army. My grandfather stuffed the lining of the trunks with cash for the trip.

History is fleeting, but it can be captured in a number of ways. Memories can be the richest, but they’re also the most private — and most suspect, if accuracy matters. Documents like the one we sought at the Fukui City Hall are public and accurate (we assume), but dry as bones, and devoid of life.

Photographs, however, capture a real moment in time. I have a reproduction of an old, sepia-toned family portrait which speaks volumes of history to me.

Five boys and three girls flank my grandparents (my grandfather gave all eight children American first names, so I have to think he had planned to stay in Hawaii). Both adults are wearing traditional kimonos, as are all three daughters. The boys stand straight-backed with ties on, the two oldest in suits. My father — the youngest son — is the only one wearing shorts, and looks like he’d rather be outside playing.

The family lined up in front of the kitchen counter, arranged on the shiny wood floor (curiously, for a Japanese family, everyone’s wearing shoes or sandals inside the house except for one of the boys). In the background is a vase of beautiful Hawaiian flowers, and glass-front shelves displaying china and glasses. Along the top of the wall are several framed pieces — what looks like a maritime print of a ship, a large work of calligraphy, and a photo of the Showa Emperor Hirohito and his wife — all hung in the typically Japanese style, very high and leaning out at a severe angle, the easier for people sitting on the floor to look up at.

To the right of the family, frilly, American-style drapes and pulldown shades partially cover a window that glows brightly with the Hawaiian daylight. Within a couple of years, this light would give way to the dark years of war.


Fukui is the kind of Japanese city I remember from my childhood: The buildings are grimy with streaks of soot, and electrical wires criss-cross crazily above the narrow downtown streets. And the surrounding countryside is the kind of Japanese countryside I remember: farms of rice paddies cut in tidy rows as far as I could see.

When my mother and I rode into Fukui from the regional airport an hour away, the air was hazy with the blue smoke of rice husks being burned at the end of the harvest. The sweet incense hung in the air the entire time we were there.

We expected very little from our trip to Fukui because we knew very little about the family’s roots. Dad never spoke of his childhood to us. He never even told Mom about his years in Fukui.

We knew his ancestors came from Fukui, and we knew that my grandfather had paid for a torii gate to be built in the Asakawa family name in the countryside outside of town, in a place called Kowata. We knew that my dad and his brothers and sisters were brought there from Hawaii in 1940 by my grandfather. And we knew that in the waning weeks of the war, the family was forced to move to Kowata when Fukui was firebombed by the U.S.

My mother met my dad during the Korean war when he was stationed in Nemuro, the small northern city where she was born and raised. He never talked about Fukui — as far as she knew, he was from Hawaii.

But in 1958, when I was just an infant and we lived in Tokyo, my folks got a call from the Red Cross hospital in Fukui. My grandfather, Kyutaro Asakawa, was dying of cancer, and the nurse who had tracked down my father requested that we bring him home to Tokyo. He came and lived with us until his death.

Four decades later, we were there to visit the city hall and look up the records of my father’s family.

But on a hunch, my mom made a phone call the first morning at the hotel. It turns out that for some years, my parents had stayed in touch with Keiko Utsubo, the nurse who had taken care of my grandfather, and my mom still had her address.

Keiko Utsubo no longer lived at that address, but as luck would have it, her sister did. And, now married, Keiko Sasaki still worked at the hospital — these days as the operator of the hospital’s restaurant and gift shop. My mom left a message and we went downstairs for an American style breakfast of $3 coffee, $12 eggs, $10 juice and $7 toast.

Breakfast was interrupted by a phone call from Sasaki-san, who invited us out to the hospital to reminisce. Before we wolfed down our meal to leave, my mom was called to the phone again. The former nurse’s brother, Keisaku, who had visited our family in Tokyo when he was a young student, was calling from Shimizu, a city across Japan between Tokyo and Kyoto. Now a vice-president for Hitachi, the giant conglomerate, he was calling to say that he was skipping work and riding the train to Fukui to take us out to dinner that night.

Overwhelmed by such generosity, we went to the hospital, and sat with Mrs. Sasaki for several hours (and ate her great food). She remembered Kyutaro Asakawa vividly not only because of my parents’ later friendship, but also because at the time, it was so unusual for elderly Japanese to be hospitalized with no family visitors.

She also remembered taking Kyutaro to pick up some belongings, but he never mentioned that his entire family had lived just a few kilometers outside of town. In fact, she only found out about my father because she mentioned that her dream was to be a nurse in America. Kyutaro perked up and said he had lived in Hawaii, and mentioned he had two sons, one of whom was a U.S. Army soldier in Tokyo. (He had five sons and three daughters….)

After a full morning and some tantalizing details about my grandfather, she helped us find a taxi driver who served as our guide for the next two days. Armed with only the slightest idea of where Kowata was outside of town, we headed into the countryside in search of a torii gate.

The landscape was dotted with torii gates — tributes to the rice crops — though, and we didn’t have much hope of finding my dad’s roots. I figured the real work would come the next day, when we planned to go to the city hall.

But with a steady drizzle starting, our driver suddenly swerved off the two-lane highway onto an extremely narrow country road that sloped steeply down to the level of the recently harvested paddies. He crept among a labyrinth of crowded farmhouses, and just when my mom was about to tell him to try the highway again, he turned a corner and in front of us was a torii gate made of concrete and stone, standing guard at the bottom of a high, narrow hill at the top of which perched a small Shinto shrine, or “jinja.”

We sat in the car while the driver got out and inspected the monument, which was cracked in parts. He returned and stuck his head inside. “Mr. Asakawa, right? Kyutaro Asakawa?” he asked.

He had found an inscription with my grandfather’s name.

While we circled the gate, the driver went to a ramshackle old home nearby. An old man came out in his wooden geta slippers, and the taxi driver asked if he knew anything about this gate.

“Oh yes,” said the old man. “A man from here who went to Hawaii and got rich had this built when I was just a child.

“The family came and lived there after the war,” he added, waving over a rise in the landscape to the left of the gate. “The house isn’t there anymore, though.”

We asked if he had any memories of the family that lived there — if he’d played with my father.

“Oh yes,” he said. “But if you want to know more, why don’t you ask the Asakawas — they live right up there.”

He pointed past the rice paddies up the hill to a line of larger farmhouses, and started walking along the dirt road in the drizzle, with all of us scrambling after him and the driver bringing up the rear, creeping along in his Toyota.

At the top of the hill, he stopped at the first building, a magnificent home with traditional tile roof and wood detailing. We knocked on the door, explained who we were and created a stir in the household.

It was the house where my grandfather was born, and it now belonged to my father’s first cousin. His daughter lived there with her husband, and many members of the family were there because this happened to be a national holiday. Phone calls were made, food and tea were served, and we sat down (on the floor) to get to know each other.

We saw a second cousin that looked eerily like my younger brother Glenn, and my father’s cousin, who had the same dashing curl in his hair as my dad. It was an amazing day, and it wasn’t even over.

I felt as if I’d finally come home.


The Asakawa family’s roots are deeply planted in the rice paddies that surround the city of Fukui. In the few hours that I spent getting to know some of our relatives, we learned that generations of Asakawas had farmed the land in the village of Kowata. And we found out that 16 different houses had Asakawas in them.

Tadashi and Yoshimi Asakawa now live in the farmhouse that my grandfather was born in — it belongs to Yoshimi’s father, my uncle, Tadao Asakawa. In Japan, it’s not uncommon for a man to marry into a family and take his wife’s name to continue the line.

We met a blur of relatives in the short time we spent at the home. We sat in the family room on cushions the floor, while young and old trooped by to introduce themselves to us. By a terrific coincidence, the day turned out to be a Monday holiday — Sports Day — and family members who don’t live in the area had stopped by on their way to nearby resort hot springs. We sat sipping Nescafe (an ever-present substitute for “real” coffee all over Japan) and ogling photos of my dad’s family that my uncle had carefully saved for six decades.

But the conversation this first day was just a prelude. Because we had to get back to the “New Yours” hotel in downtown Fukui in time for dinner, we made plans to return the next day for a long afternoon interviewing the family.

Keisaku-san, the younger brother of Keiko-san the nurse who had cared for my grandfather in the late ’50s, was waiting when we arrived back at the hotel.

A small man in a dark business suit, holding a small satchel at his side, he could be any Japanese salaryman (a lifelong company employee), but he happened to be the general manager of finance for the Trans-Tokyo Bay Highway Corp., and he had recently been working on the financing of the huge Tokyo Bay bridge and tunnel project.

He lived in Shimizu, a city between Tokyo and Kyoto, and rode the Shinkansen, or Bullet Train, into work every day. But today, he had taken the day off when he heard that we had come to Fukui, and hopped a cross-country train ride to take us out to dinner. It was a perfect example of the Japanese sense of obligation, or “giri.”

He spoke glowingly of Mom and Dad all night, and he said his command of English today (it wasn’t exactly fluent, but passable for communication) was due in part to Mom and Dad welcoming him when he was a student. He came for a couple of extended stays and several shorter visits while we lived in Tokyo. I remembered his face (especially after seeing photos of us with him), but had no strong memories.

Keisaku-san, however, hadn’t forgotten a thing.

He remembered our life in Japan much more accurately than Mom did, because he gauged the places we lived by his life’s milestones, such as graduating from high school and getting his job with Hitachi. We figured out we lived in Tokyo’s Ogikubo district a lot longer than we always remembered, and a duplex at Asahi Court fewer years than we’d thought.

After a couple of hours we walked to a nearby Japanese restaurant recommended by the hotel and had an incredible, unforgettable dinner.

The restaurant was a tiny sushi bar on downtown Fukui’s main drag (deserted because of the holiday), and upon entering, didn’t betray any of the riches we would be served. A couple of men sat at the cramped sushi bar on the first floor, but we were led upstairs to what I thought would be a sit-down restaurant. Instead, we were seated in a small private room at the end of a narrow hall, and served course upon course of traditional food: sashimi, fried fish, tempura, strange side dishes and pickled things, lots of squid in various forms, chawan-mushi (a Japanese egg custard dish I hadn’t had in years), and finally, ochazuke (rice topped with tea). Wow — I thought I’d die.

Keisaku-san heaped endless praise on Mom and Dad, and insisted on speaking only in Japanese to me to help me learn the language.

And, he told us something which convinced me this day of discovery was meant to happen: He said a swallow had built a nest in the rafters of his house during the summer, and just a few weeks before our arrival, three chicks were born in the nest.

He explained that Japanese lore has it that swallows are an omen of visitors from his past, so he knew when he heard that morning that we were in Fukui and had contacted his sister, he was fated to come see us. That’s why he unhesitatingly decided to come to Fukui to meet us.

We were the swallows, returning to the nest.


My father’s family story got more interesting the deeper we dug.

We returned to the village of Kowata for a second day of interviewing my father’s relatives about his life in Japan during World War II.

My Mother served as the interpreter and was asking 70-year-old Tadao Asakawa, Dad’s cousin, and his 67-year-old wife Tomiko-san about events 50 years ago.

We walked into the formal living room, which was walled off with traditional sliding doors (the house was elegantly balanced between contemporary and traditional), and sparsely appointed with a low, square table in the middle, the floors of course were tatami straw matting. On one wall, to the left of a Buddhist altar, hung ornately framed photos of Tadao-san’s parents and his brother, a fighter pilot who was killed during WWII.

Tadao brought out the Japanese flag his brother carried with him for luck in battle, covered with autographs and good wishes from family and friends. He wore it wrapped around his head when he went off to war.

The flag was returned decades later by a former American soldier who picked it up off a Pacific battlefield as a souvenir, and then contacted the Asakawas to give it back. Tadao kept a yellowed newspaper clip showing the ceremony when the flag was returned.

Then we moved into the kitchen, sitting at the Western-style dining table that filled most of the space. Yoshimi, who took the day off from her job at a local sake brewery to be present, kept up a steady supply of Nescafe, tea, and snacks. People came and went throughout the afternoon.

Everyone jabbered in high-speed Japanese while I tried to keep up, taking notes on a laptop computer. My mom translated my questions, but my comprehension was good enough that I could usually type the replies (more or less) before she interpreted them for me.

According to Tadao-san, my grandfather left for America when he was 19 or 20 (he was born in 1889). A carpenter who worked first in Fukui and then in Yokohama before leaving Japan, my grandfather started a successful construction business in Hawaii, married a “mail order bride” and had eight children by the late 1930s.

He brought the family back to Japan in 1940 (my grandmother Tomeno died unexpectedly, literally on the eve of their departure), first to Kyoto, and then in ’41 to Fukui, when it was clear Japan was headed for war.

Dad’s family lived outwardly as Japanese, but Tadao-san said they were obviously “American-style” in spirit. Several people mentioned that the girls spoke better Japanese than any of the boys. Dad and his brothers and sisters didn’t have a lot of close friends, not even among the cousins.

Fukui was bombed (the Japanese word for fire-bombing is “kushu”) in July of 1945 because of the rail lines that went inland from the city. 80 percent of the city was destroyed. My father’s family walked for half a day from Fukui to Kowata — about 15 kilometers –with their possessions on carts and on their backs and watched the glow of the flames against the night sky from the countryside.

Two weeks later, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. When Emperor Hirohito subsequently made his historic radio speech announcing Japan’s surrender (until then the Emperor had been regarded as a god, and no one had heard his voice before), Tadao said my Dad and his brothers and sisters excitedly yelled out the distinctly American phrase, “Pow!”

It was only recently that I found out from other Hawaiian-born Japanese Americans that my father’s family wasn’t yelling “pow,” but probably yelling “pau,” which is Hawaiian for “finished” or “done.”

After the war, Kyutaro stayed around Kowata alone after the kids left, for perhaps another five or six years before moving back to Fukui city. Tomiko-san remembered hearing he was sick and in the hospital, but the Asakawas in Kowata never visited him, and never heard from him again.

At this part of the story, as the relatives squeezed in and out of the kitchen with their recollections, I started hearing repeated references to a maid. In one anecdote, Kyutaro lived with a maid in the house he’d built, and then fought with her and the maid threw him out.

Who was this maid?

After a few minutes more conversation, I stopped my Mom to ask about this maid. Oba-san, the widow of my grandfather’s brother Yogoro, and the only surviving member of that generation, explained Kyutaro had a live-in maid the entire time the family was in the Fukui area.

After a series of nosy questions I gathered the maid was my grandfather’s lover, though nobody was direct about it (remember, my grandmother had died back in Hawaii before the trip back to Japan). The relationship must have been up-and-down, at least during the years between the departure of his kids and his hospitalization: Oba-san remembered him being lonely for the maid after one final fight when she moved back to town. He finally went to Fukui to be with her.

Tarumando no oba-san (another tiny and very old relative, the “Tarumando” refers to the house she’s from; “oba-san” is an honorific title for elderly women) added more details. She said the maid’s daughter visited the family every day for three years, and was close friends with my auntie Adan, like sisters. Tarumando no oba-san said the maid was “like a wife,” and people would mistake her for one if they didn’t know. She remembered the maid was called “Hawaii-no-obachan,” or “Hawaiian Lady.”

After more conversation and convoluted tracking of our family tree’s tangled roots, we thanked everyone and said our good-byes.

Yoshimi-san offered to drive us back to town since we’d sent our taxi driver, Kitagawa-san home when we got to Kowata. She drove us first a few more kilometers away from Fukui, to the elementary school Dad and Adan attended (they walked, just like kids in the area today).

In front of the main entrance was a small statue of a famous educator from Japanese legend, placed on a base about four feet high. The original bronze statue was melted down for the war effort, and a replica put on the carved stone base after the war. On the back was an inscription that the statue was paid for by Kyutaro Asakawa in 1938. Yoshimi said growing up, she always felt proud that her uncle was responsible for the statue.

I can’t describe the feelings I had, staring at this steely, serene figure, knowing that generations of schoolkids in this rural area of Japan knew a little bit more my family’s roots than I did.


The previous day’s revelations about my father’s family history, and the family maid who was a longtime companion for my grandfather, added a richness to our trip to Fukui. The discovery of family members made the original purpose for our trip — the retrieval of family records from the city hall — seem dry and inconsequential.

But the revelations weren’t over yet. Word had gotten around this small city and the surrounding countryside that George Hisayuki Asakawa’s son was in the area with his mother, researching “roots,” a word that the Japanese understood.

On the final morning, as we prepared for a relaxing day of sightseeing with our trusty driver of the past several days, Kitagawa-san, we got a phone call at the hotel.

It was Hiroko Yamamoto, the daughter of Kiyoko Yamamoto, the maid.

The maid! Somebody had called her last night to tell her about our visit. Hiroko-san had often played with my father.

We visited with her in the hotel lobby, jogging her memory for more details about Dad’s family.

Hiroko-san fondly remembered Dad as a troublemaker. She also said my oldest aunt Miki could be intimidating. She agreed with my uncle Tadao that all the Asakawa women were smart and picked up the language pretty well, but all the men had various problems assimilating.

Hiroko-san was very nice, but there were some details in her version of the story that conflicted with others’ memories, and sometimes her own (it’s not surprising, since these events took place 50 years ago). Instead of a dramatic escape from the city amidst flames, she was sure the family had pretty much moved to the countryside village of Kowata by the time of the “kushu,” or fire-bombing of the city by the U.S., leading some neighbors to wonder if they were American spies with foreknowledge.

But she said the kushu was no secret, anyway – most everyone knew Japan was going to lose the war, and American planes had been systematically bombing cities for months.

Hiroko-san said her mother was with Kyutaro for 20 years, and they finally separated for good over his gambling, not long before he ended up at the Red Cross hospital with cancer. The couple’s post-war house back in the city was just a block from a bicycle race track (it’s still there, and the races are still popular), where he apparently spent what remained of his fortune from Hawaii.

She had some nicely observed memories, such as traveling into town as a little girl to visit the U.S. Army base with my aunt Miki, my other aunt Adan with dad in tow, coming to play with her at her house.

Hiroko-san then took us via a short taxi ride to the locations of two Asakawa homes in the Asuwa district of Fukui, the war-time one in a converted pawn shop that had enough property to include a garden where the family could grow their vegetables, and the smaller one near the velodrome where Kyutaro moved after the war. Both have long since been torn down; the first is now a parking lot and the other has another home on the lot.

After the taxi ride, we were dropped off at the hotel and Hiroko-san went off to work, but she planned to take us out to dinner.

We called Kitagawa-san then and spent the day sight-seeing, after first stopping by the Fukui Prefectural History Museum, which was small but nice, with photos that gave me a better idea of what the area was like before, during and after the war.

We drove to Tojimbo, an extremely touristy but beautiful point along some spectacular cliffs along the Sea of Japan. We had some “ramune” (bottled lemonade, a very popular soft drink in Japan) at a gift shop and saw a couple of other scenic points, while Kitagawa-san recalled his youth in Fukui, including a curious tale of finding long strips of silvery paper on the trees on the hillsides near the town the day after the kushu. He also remembered the jishin, or earthquake, that destroyed half the city in 1948.

We got to know Kitagawa-san well over the few days he drove us around. I finally asked him if he could read any of the many signs around Japan that are written in English, with no Japanese translations (it’s hard to imagine a business in the U.S. would have a sign only in Japanese).

He said no – younger Japanese can read English, but he can’t.

The Americanization of Japan has left him behind, but he took it in good stride. “I can’t read the name ‘Cosmo,’ but I know it’s a gas station, so it’s all right,” he said as we drove by a Cosmo station.

Dinner with Hiroko-san and Mayumi was at a traditional restaurant like the one Keisaku-san took us two nights earlier, only fancier. We left our shoes at the entrance to the booth, and knelt at one end of a long, narrow low table. A group of boisterous businessmen were having a dinner meeting in the other half of the large room, while we were served another multiple-course affair with many mysterious seafood items, topped off with steak.

After dinner, Kitagawa-san picked us up one last time for the trip to the station to await an overnight bus to Tokyo. I’ll never forget him – he was our guide for the most exciting part of this incredible trip, digging for my family roots.

* * * * * * *

The story of my father’s family journey from Hawaii to wartime Japan, and life during the American Occupation, has many more chapters. I’ll tell them in a historical novel someday soon, to explain to readers what life in Japan was like during this tumultuous time in world history. Thanks for reading!

16 Responses to Digging For Roots: Swallows Return

  1. jill shiraki says:


    what a touching story about your search for your family roots. you happened upon the Asakawa family and restored relations that were severed a generation ago. i was especially moved by the story of the swallows and the importance of reconnecting with family friend Keisaku-san.

    thanks for sharing this. i look forward to your next book!

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks, Jill — what a nice comment!

  3. Pingback: Erin Yoshimura, Gil Asakawa, and visualizAsian.com « Strange Tango

  4. Hi Gil,

    Wow, as a Sansei like yourself, born in Honolulu and growing up in Japan, your family story paints a vivid picture in my mind. So omoshiroi! There are so few Japanese immigrant stories so please do write one. I look forward to reading it.

  5. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks, Jenny! I bet a lot of us have more interesting family histories than we know. I just couldn’t believe my dad never wanted to talk about his story.

  6. What a wonderful story! I’m so happy to have found this. I would love to visit Japan some day, and reading this painted a vivid picture of some of what I might find. Thank you.

  7. Dale Ann Sato says:

    I read your “swallow ” stories with deep interest since my great grandparents on my mother’s side originated from Fukui, exactly where I don’t know. Two days ago, my sisters and I discovered an old suitcase filled with “paper riches”—-a koseki register of the Nakagawa family! With that we can begin our own “swallow journeys.”. Thank you for sharing your experiences!!

  8. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks for your comment — and please let me know how your family journey turns out!

  9. Dale Ann Sato says:

    Hi, Gil, I am sorry, but I don’t do social media, only direct emails.

  10. Gil Asakawa says:

    🙂 That’s fine!

  11. hisayo tanaka & bob ames says:

    stirs so many emotions. a fascinating and stimulating account. thank you for sharing it with us, Gil!

  12. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thank you for reading, Hisayo and Bob!

  13. Jan Morrill says:

    What a fascinating family history, Gil. I’ve been so focused on the internment story of my family that I’ve hardly thought in much detail about the story of the Japanese who returned to Japan. I admire your persistence in finding these stories–you encourage me to keep searching for the “Japan side” of mine.

  14. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks, Jan… I was just speaking with the exec director of the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center in Portland today, about all the may many stories of the JA community that have gone untold. One glaring hole in our history is resettlement after WWII, but also JAs in Japan….

  15. Joyce Lebra says:


    What a delightful account of your trip to search for your roots. Isn’t it amazing
    that so many houses in Kowata had Asakawas living in it!
    Your father was so cute in the photos.
    I hope to interview you soon about not only your father’s roots but your mother’s.

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