Sunday, February 27, 2011

Ancestors and Descendants

“He was like a god,” my aunt Ruri said about my great grandfather. “After we returned from Shanghai, we lived with him.”

“He used to read us aloud Heike Monogatari when we went to sleep,” my mother said. Heike Monogatari is about the fall of Taira clan.

His name was Yamada Kikan, also known as Norichika. He was born in 1861, and at the age of four, he was sent to a special school away from his mother. How lonely he must have felt. He was a descendant of a samurai. He has been my most interesting ancestor, but not in a spectacular way. He was a pillar rather than a center of attention. All his family get-together photos, some of his relatives and friends drew more public attention than he.

“Our ancestor went to Kyoto with Nitta Yoshisada after the fall of Kamakura Government. It probably took a long time to come back home after their defeat,” my grandfather said to my mother about a 14 century incidence when I was young. .

I didn’t do well in my Japanese history class. The history seemed to be emperors after emperors and wars after wars. My favorite classes were Modern Japanese, Japanese and Chinese classics, and English classes.

So, in 1993, when my mother started to tell me about our ancestors, I guess I couldn’t digest her information well. That was after she had an operation for her liver cancer. She spoke about my great grandfather and probably a few relatives, and she used the words such as “commander,” “chief,” or “commander in chief.” For me, military titles and sections are not easy to understand or remember, so I’m insecure to translate those words.

I wrote some information down. The great grandfather had gone to the Russo-Japanese War, and in his last battle at the 203-meter-hill, he was shot through his upper left arm while all high ranking officers died. He was a shosa, a major.

A few years ago, I went to the military library in Shinagawa and copied a few pages from their records, and made a visit to the Shinagawa district public office and obtained the family records. I saw the name of the great grandfather’s father for the first time. The man lived in the Edo period. There was not much I could do to find more information, so I read the first edition of Russo-Japanese War written by Hiratuka Masao. In the book, I found his name and the title, daitaicho. I looked it up in my dictionary, and it said a battalion commander. I thought he was promoted to the commander from shosa. Dai of daitaicho means big, and sho of shosa means little or small. I was confused.

He was the head of his extended family. In those days, the children of samurai families married a member of other samurai families, and the first born followed the footsteps of his father.

In the 70s, Kashin written by Shiba Ryotaro became the best seller. My mother had told me that my great grandfather’s elder sister was married to the only son of Yamamoto Hanya who appeared in the novel. He was the head of the Hamada Clan. She said he committed hara-kiri in their flaming castle, and the author described him as the last samurai. With this dramatic piece of information, I became interested in the Japanese history for the first time. I went to a Japanese bookstore in Little Tokyo, bought the book, and read. She was right. But recently, I’ve researched on the Web and found out that the Hamada clan didn’t have a castle. I think my mother probably believed the scene in the novel. My mother died in 1996.

A year ago or so, I put my great grandfather’s name in Google search, and found a match. It was a Shiba Ryotaro related site. The author wrote Sakanouenokumo which is about the Russo-Japanese War. The description I found was the characterization of Akashi Motojiro as follows.

“On the day of a celebration, Yamada Kikan goes to congratulate Akashi on his new post, the 7th governor of Taiwan. After the celebration party, Akashi invites Yamada to his hotel room, and they talk until very late at night. So, Akashi asked Yamada to stay over, but he had only one bed.”

I think they eventually got an extra bed from somewhere, but I think my great grandfather wanted to compliment him for being hospitable and unselfish. He was two years older than Akashi. Anyway, I was surprised to see my great grandfather’s name on the Web.

Then, just three weeks ago, I made a visit to my aunt in her convalescent home in Santa Clarita. My cousin Kenneth picked me up, and first we went to his house and talked. While looking at their photos, he told me that the last commander in chief of  the Kwantung Army during WWII was our grandfather’s cousin.

“I didn’t know that,” I said.

I wonder why I didn’t know it. I returned home and researched on the Web. Japanese Wikipedia shows Yamada Otozo was from Nagano Prefecture. I thought all my relatives on my mother side lived in Tokyo. So, I asked Kenneth to confirm with his mother on this point. She has dementia, but she remembers her past details well. He came back with her reply. Yes, he was from Nagano prefecture. I guess the family was more wide spread than I thought. I probably failed to catch the information from my mother and aunt, but Kenneth has a military experience. He is a Vietnam veteran.

Kenneth Maeda was at FSB Illingworth on April 1, 1970 when it was attacked by the North Vietnamese Army.  His unit was B-Btry 1/77 Artillery, 1st Cavalry Division.  Kenneth’s father was a civilian employee of the U.S. Govt. in Japan after WWII (not an air force man as I wrote before) and worked at the same type of job in Korea after the Korean War.  And Kenneth’s nephew, David McDowell, served the Iraq War.  That’s the American side of our family.

Back in Japan, my father was a first lieutenant in WWII. He must have known the name of the last commander in chief and the relation to my mother’s family. My grandfather was the third son, and he was an engineer and entrepreneur, but his eldest brother followed his father in the military career. He was a taisa, colonel, of Artillery division, but he probably retired way before the end of WWII. He was 11 or 13 years older than my grandfather. The second son was adopted by Yamada Kōrin or Hirotomo, a military doctor and a lieutenant general. I think he changed his last name after he adopted the baby. In the family record, the name of the first son was written as Issei and the second son as makizo. Issei has the meaning of the first, and makizo, the third. Their cousin, Yamada Otozo, returned to Japan from Russia after 11 years there.

I wonder how my father felt when he heard the news. “The war criminal returned from Siberia after 11 years.” I calculated the years. My grandfather came to live with us in Yokohama shortly afterward. Before the war, families were large, they helped each other, and they had a large get-together every New Year. After the war, families became like our nucleus family plus a grandfather or grandmother.

My family lived together under the same roof and ate our meals at the same table. But I had never heard them discussed about the war, war criminals, or Siberia. My father and grandfather didn’t talk much to each other. I only saw them greet.


keiko amano said...

On the topic of "interesting ancestor," I've posted this blog last night at

ashok said...

That is a lot of impressive research on your ancestors Keiko. If you make a nice document of it, aside from the blog, with photos it could be a souvenir for the rest of the family that future geerations are sure to appreciate.

keiko amano said...


Thank you. There are more direct ways to research and gather more photos, but it costs money and time. I think it's enough if I write this and that about our family once in a while. My children are busy and do not show much interest. But if I died, they wouldn't be able to research on their own.

In India, do you keep a good family records? Can you go to a government office and request to see your family records to 18th or 17th century? Or more?

Dorraine said...

Amazing what you can learn about your ancestors in this computer age. It's not like the old days when we had to rely on only family stories, although those are priceless, too.

I enjoyed hearing about your family, history Keiko. Sounds like you've got a great start on all those facts and memories.

One of my sisters loves genealogy, and she's worked for years putting an impressive family history together for our family. I'm thankful to her for that gift.

keiko amano said...


About this computer age, yes, it's amazing, and what I write also shows up on the Web right away. It is testing me and how honestly I'm able to write. I hope my story stirs some interest in people and gives people a chance to look at military men and wars further for the purpose of peace.

You're lucky to have a genealogist in your family. I want to spend my time writing short stories, but for now, I'm an acting amateur genealogist of my family.

By the way, I still dont't know what "warhog" is.

keiko amano said...


Thank you, Kenneth. I think either my mother had a wrong information or my confusion, but Kenneth’s father was a civilian employee of the U.S. Govt. in Japan after WWII (not an air force man as I wrote before) and worked at the same type of job in Korea after the Korean War. It is still very interesting to me that after the Japan's defeat, a Japanese American man landed in Tokyo and married my aunt and had a son who eventually went to the Vietnam War. I'm still shaking my head over this blog. People have no idea about the backgroud of each individual.

ashok said...

Keiko, many persons are not interested in family history when they are young but get interested when they get older. All your work will be helpful to them then, especially if you preserve a hard copy.

In India the goverment does not do a good job of keeping family records but we have a system of priests who mantain records for families over many geneartions.

keiko amano said...


The temples in Japan also keep old records. I don't know the name of the old family temple, but if I want to find out about the ancestors further, I think I can. But I don't know if I want to do more research. When I find some interesting info., some negative information come with it. It makes me think a lot which is not a bad thing, but I don't want to get depressed each time I think about it. I rather write a short story and enjoy my life.

By the way, I finished the story that you became curious about before. I hope it'll get published. I'll let you know if it does.

ZACL said...

There's a tremendous amount of work in your discoveries. When you take the facts out of sterile school books and bring some personal facet into them, it all becomes much more lively and interesting.

My brother-in-law is a serious and respected genealogist. His current 'problem' is to convince an American relative that they have embarked up the wrong pathway and got someone else's ancestors on their family tree. This has arisen because of lack of local knowledge of family movements, behaviors, and naming conventions.

keiko amano said...


Yes, I’m finding out a lot such as the tendencies and behaviors of the people behind the facts. I think there were tremendous competition behind filial piety, honor, and success. My mother used to say often, “House used to be the most important concept.” Now I understand her words better. I think she insinuated that many people went out of their way to elevate their honor to their own house, and the out-of-way was sometimes against human decency.

Although our cultures are far apart, I feel sympathy to your mention: “lack of local knowledge of family movements, behaviors, and naming conventions.” In our situation also, I bet many Japanese themselves don’t understand the past family movements, behaviors and naming conventions because when I think about our past history, it’s like a foreign country.

I’m curious about your brother-in-law’s work. His perspectives must be educational.

ZACL said...

My brother-in-law does give talks on genealogy and used to be the chairman of a local group. He now lets someone else run the group and he supports it with talks advice and committee work. A wife of a local pharmacist is a professional genealogist and she is also involved with the local interest in genealogy.

B-in-Law has researched direct and indirect lines of my husband's family and more recently has looked at other branches of his own family history. Like you, he has found some interesting facts and well known historical figures along the way.

I think B-in-Law wanted to look at my family tree. The UK bit was probably straightforward on one side, because there would not be a lot to find, but, but elsewhere would have been very difficult to proceed. It was quite awkward for me to get some information because of the manner in which records were secreted by the State. On the other side, there are enormous complexities and complications. I have not heard anymore about it.

A cousin on the complex side of my family did a lot of genealogical work with the help of others, but he did not reference the evidence at all well. It therefore becomes anecdotal reference rather than good research. However, it is known that some of the details are probably good. The book that was produced, (in a rush) does put a lot of obscure detail in one place for someone more rigorous to check out, one day.

ZACL said...

To explain, the mention of The State, does not refer to the U.K. it is elsewhere.

keiko amano said...


There must be a lot to learn to do proper research and follow genealogy. I don't know if I'm doing it right. I've been just following one keyword after another since my aunt has given me more names and details.

In your case, it sounds very complicated. To describe the complication must be a challenge. Most Japanese didn't move around much, so probably, it's easier for us to follow our family trees. Also, we benefit from our record keeping tendency. But more information I find, I bet it will get more complicated. So, when to stop is a question.

ZACL said...

Hello Keiko,

The issue may not be when to stop, but one of keeping a focus; do not rush off down too many branches. Note them for future interest, while keeping on track with the line you began with. That alone will give you a room with empty walls to fill with family revelations. Notes are usually made separately and linked to an individual.

Currently, both hubby and Bro-in-Law are enmeshed in different researches, which they live with in their heads. When I hear them talking about what they are doing it sounds as if it is an obsessional activity. It certainly fires them up.