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Getting info on samurai ancestors

Stacey

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I was told by my late grandmother that my great, great-grandfather was a samurai. I have been trying to verify this. My cousin was able to obtain a koseki containing scant family info going back only to my great –grandfather. Luckily, his father’s name is listed and there are three addresses in Hiroshima which provide a starting point. I was told that the best way to get information is through temples. At minimum, I seek confirmation of our samurai descent. It would be great to get a family crest and a detailed family history.

I have already done a lot of work, e. g. online searches, email to the City of Hiroshima and a Buddhist bishop in Los Angeles with no real results. Please note that I do not speak or write Japanese. These are the questions I hope someone can answer definitively:

1. Am I following the right procedure? Perhaps there is a simple “samurai registry” which I can consult (I am pretty certain there is so such thing) or some other document that I can easily obtain elsewhere.
2. Does anyone know exactly how I can obtain a list of temples and contact info in what were the old Misasa and Nagatsuka neighborhoods of Hiroshima? (“Go to Japan and ask there” or “Phone so-and-so” are not practical due to time and money constraints, in addition to the fact that I don’t speak, read or write Japanese)
3. If I write these temples (I would need a translator), exactly what should I be asking for? I think there are death records, marriage records, etc. complicated by different names given to individuals after they die. In what form should requests be submitted?

Thanks for your feedback.
 

Mike Cash

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I doubt many temple archives survived the atomic bombing....
 

Stacey

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I thought about how vulnerable temples and their records were. However, the city was able to provide a koseki so apparently not everything was destroyed. I didn't mention another possibly significant piece of the puzzle. A distant relative said she had a photo of a tombstone which she thought belonged to one of my ancestors. The significance is that the samurai "proof" I seek may possibly be found literally on temple grounds.
 

Mike Cash

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Hiroshima is more than just a city; it is a prefecture. It is possible the koseki was from a municipality which was not affected by the bombing.
 

Glenski

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Realize, too, that gravestones do not show only the person's birth name. There is also a new posthumous name.
 

Stacey

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1) That is why I mentioned the Misasa and Nagatsuka neighborhoods (? -- they are identified as "mura"). Luckily, I don't think I have to search the entire prefecture. 2) My cousin was able to obtain a koseki, and I am confident I can provide whatever documentation is required. 3) Not only might the tombstone be literally outside the priests' window, it might give the posthumous name. Unfortunately, the distant relative seems to have lost interest and I cannot depend on her cooperation. BTW, thanks to all who have responded so far. My responses are not meant to be argumentative. Please keep in mind that I have pretty much exhausted all online and other resources and am hoping for some sort of breakthrough here.
 

Majestic

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There is no procedure other than making local inquiries and piecing together whatever you can from the materials at hand. I think it will be extremely difficult to obtain any relevant historical information without coming here and doing some local investigation in Japanese. Trying to do Japanese genealogical research by remote, in English, will produce very limited results. I mean, you are looking for source documents dating from the mid-1800s, that would be difficult to come by even if you were based here in Japan and spoke fluent Japanese. (And they would be quite hard to read, requiring a further level of expertise).

I looked at Google maps and Misasa and Nagatsuka are two neighborhoods that are bloody close to ground zero. I think the chances of finding original source documents there are going to be quite slim - but I've been surprised before, so maybe there is a surprise for you there. My guess is that your koseki was reconstituted using copies of official documents that may have been stored outside of the city. Official documents are going to be neutral on the rank or caste of your ancestry. You would need to be an avid history buff indeed to turn up a document that made any specific mention of rank of your family, unless your family was lofty enough to have historical significance.

I don't think you need to fret too much over the posthumous name, as these are largely ceremonial. The tombstone should have the family name on it, and if you are lucky it might also have the family crest (家紋) on it as well. Existence of a family crest doesn't guarantee any sort of nobility, mind you. Most every Japanese family has a family crest.

If your last name is somewhat uncommon (say, something like Chosokabe), it could be a big clue as to your ancestry. Apocryphally speaking, Fujiwara was the name of an old court family, and it is commonly believed that most any name with the character for "fuji" in it, is of noble descent, but this is sort of like the number of Americans who claim their ancestors came over on the Mayflower.

I would pester the cousin one more time to find out if she knows where the grave is located. That would be a good clue to have. Is your cousin in Japan? Does she or any of her relatives have any info on the family?

As an aside, you also have to open yourself up to the possibility that your family's background isn't as high as you would hope. Also bear in mind that "samurai" is a word that has become common currency in the west, but in Japan you will not find any document that identifies any family as "samurai". More likely you will find a document that identifies your family as being a retainer of a local lord/governor (daimyo) with a stipend of a certain amount of rice per year. But...I think it is a longshot that you would find such a document.
 

Mike Cash

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We're very limited in what we can do or say to help you. You have the koseki and can't read it. We can read it but don't have it. It might help if you would share it with us.

Copies of koseki were kept by the Ministry of Justice in Tokyo, but those got bombed out in late April 1945. Perhaps Hiroshima sent replacement copies prior to being bombed. Temple records wouldn't have been backed up off-site; when those burned, they were just gone.
 

Stacey

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I appreciate Majestic's candid, reasoned and factual response, which I have saved and will use as a reference source. I seek only the truth, which I will share with my children if useful. With honor comes great responsibility, and I have always tried to instill the latter in them. In the context of glory and honor, I recognize that samurai is not equivalent to aristocracy, and read that most Japanese today would laugh if you brought up such ancestry in ordinary conversation.

In regards to presumptive samurai status, I depend on my late grandmother's memories, specifically being told that her grandfather defiantly refused to cut off his topknot. This seems an odd and obscure reference for someone to make up out of whole cloth, decades after the Meiji Restoration. I am also confident that this ancestor was of low (if any) samurai status, otherwise his son would not have emigrated to Hawaii. Of course, non-eldest sons of aristocratic families in England and Ireland also commonly emigrated, for economic and social reasons.

Two relatives have participated in the research to now, and giving up I think would diminish their hard work, and kind and determined efforts. In regards to uncommon surnames, the opposite applies in my case. The family name was "Nakamura." Yes, I seek a needle in an haystack but can at least say I tried.

I will do my best to obtain that apocryphal tombstone photo, and attempt to contact temples in the area. The City of Hiroshima finally responded, advising the areas of interest are Nishi-ku, Hiroshima (広島市西区), and Asaminami-ku, Hiroshima(広島市安佐南区). I would be indebted to anyone who can provide a list of temples and addresses.

I also thank Mike Cash for his response. The koseki was translated into English. It is what I think is typical for its time, starting with my great-great grandfather's name, and very scant in its content, essentially names, birth and death data of his immediate descendants. I doubt that it in itself would provide any further clues.

Regards,

st
 

Toritoribe

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A family doesn't always belong to a nearby temple from the place they live, unless they have continued to live in the same place for long time, e.g., from the beginning of Edo period.

Danka system - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Bodaiji - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In fact, I live in a relatively rural area of a city, but dandera of my neighbors are all different. The temple of a family next to us is 10km or so away from here, i.e., it exists in a different town of the same city.

Don't you know which school of Buddhism your family belonged to, such like Jōdo, Rinzai or Sōtō? It would be helpful to specify the temple of your family.
 

Stacey

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Thanks for the feedback. I know religious affiliation is significant in my search. I have yet to find out to which sect my ancestors belonged; this would help in my search. I am following different avenues simultaneously and hope at least one will pay off.
 
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