Kosekis from Gotō: Japanese Genealogy Explained
*This article is shared with client permission. Names have been changed to protect client privacy.
Requests for Japanese genealogy research are less frequent than other areas of the world, so we were excited to have the opportunity to study the ancestry of Fumiko Matsu, who was born in the early 1930s in Kishiku, Japan and later immigrated to the United States.
Surnames in Japanese Genealogy
The most important thing to understand about Japanese genealogy is that until the Meiji era (1868-1912), ordinary people did not have surnames. Rather, surnames were only used by people in positions of power, nobility, or great artistic ability. The Meiji era was one of tremendous social and cultural revolution. No longer an isolated island avoiding trade or communication with the outside world, Japan’s new leaders pushed their country into the modern world, striving to compete with rival Western innovations and thinking. Accordingly, all commoners were required to choose and register a family name for themselves.
What is the Koseki?
During this same revolutionary period, The Japanese civil registration record, known as koseki, was created in 1872, containing information about birth, marriage, death, adoption, and divorce of people in the same household. Persons were stricken from the record in the case of death, marriage, divorce, adoption, forfeiture of citizenship, or leaving home by other means to establish an independent household.
These two great changes in Japanese social history are the reason that most modern Japanese families can only trace their lineage back to the early 1800s using civil registration records. (Although this form of record keeping started in 1872, the birth dates of elderly family members can extend genealogies back several decades earlier.)
Overcoming Privacy Laws to Extend Japanese Genealogy
Due to strict privacy laws in Japan, only direct descendants with proof of lineage can access the koseki of their direct ancestors. With assistance from one of our native Japanese researcher with connections to several important archives, we were fortunate to successfully obtain all of the existing kosekis for the client’s direct ancestors, extending her pedigree three generations and learning several interesting stories.
Japanese Genealogy: The Importance of Historical Context
The islands of Gotō, the ancestral home of Fumiko Matsu, have a unique history in Japan. Due to its location, Gotō was a trading post between Japan, China, and Korea for hundreds of years but was also the site of the birth of the “hidden Christian” movement, highlighted in the critically acclaimed novel Silence, by Shusaku Endo. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, Christians from the mainland of Japan would flee to Gotō to escape persecution and hide among the inhabitants. Freedom of religion was not introduced in Japan until the Meiji era, when over fifty churches were built in Gotō and can be visited today. It was not apparent whether the Omaki and Matsu families were part of this movement, but they most likely knew people within their community who were involved.
Adoption in Japanese Culture
There were two cases of adoption on the family record. In Japanese culture, adoption does not necessarily mean a child was an orphan, unwanted, or not cared for by the biological parents, as it would in Western cultures. It was common practice for a family with more than one son to transfer a son to another family in the community who were childless or had only daughters. In this way, one family could assist in maintaining the legacy of the other. In the case of the Matsu family registration, Fumiko’s grandfather, Genjuro Matsu, born as Genjuro Omaki, was the third son of Matakichi Omaki, but was adopted at age 16 by Sakujiro Matsu, most likely to carry on the Matsu name. Another example showed Fumiko Matsu’s brother, Satoru Matsu, second son of Sakujuro and Nao Matsu, was adopted out at age eight to Rikiko Omaki, after which his biological parents had three more sons.
Using Records to Uncover Details of our Ancestors’ Lives
Two more interesting stories were discovered. Yoshio Matsu died at the age of 16 in Osaka. His death was reported by the Osaka Chief of Police. Cause of death cannot be determined on a Japanese family register, but as the police were involved, he may have died by accident or crime. Finally, we learned that Tsuma Omaki was Kichitaro’s fifth and last wife; he had divorced his previous four wives.
If the family can learn which Buddhist temple their ancestors attended, it is possible to contact that temple to obtain an ancestor’s kakocho, or death record. The kakocho contains information such as gender, birth order, dates of birth, and death. Also, Nagasaki Prefectural Archives might have a file on the ancestral family. In Japan, beginning in the 1960s, any family can store genealogical documents in their respective Prefectural Archives at no cost. These documents are available for research and are open to the public unless requested to be closed by the donating family.
Do you have Japanese ancestors you’d like to know more about? We would love to help you obtain their koseki and discover your family’s story. Contact us today to request your free consultation!