College student Allison Maryoung connects with long-lost relatives in Japan, made possible through her participation in the Kakehashi Project.
By Allison Maryoung
As a half-Japanese American who was raised in a predominately Caucasian neighborhood, I had very little knowledge about Japanese culture or even my Japanese ancestry. I was unable to learn about my Japanese ancestry and speak with my grandparents because they only spoke Japanese. As a result, I had only heard small parts of their history when my mother was there to translate.
I was told that I had relatives living in Wakayama, Japan, and that my grandfather’s relatives, whom we have not spoken to or seen in more than 30 years, lived on a plum farm. Being unable to have a full conversation with my grandparents made me feel an extreme disconnect from them and my culture.
So, when I learned about the Kakehashi Project, I jumped at the chance to experience Japanese culture, history and cuisine. However, I did not realize that this trip would give me one of the most emotional and memorable experiences of my life.
On the fifth day of the Kakehashi Project, we traveled to a small town called Inami in the Wakayama Prefecture. There, we were fortunate enough to experience Japanese life first-hand through a homestay with a family in the area.
A group of three girls and myself met our host mother, Tokumi Shota. On the way to her farm, she asked us if we had family in Wakayama. I told her that I had relatives in Wakayama, but I did not know which town or city because my family had lost contact with them over 30 years ago. Mrs. Shota asked for their last names, and she immediately recognized my grandfather’s last name.
Halfway through dinner, Mrs. Shota was on the phone with people who we thought could be my relatives, and she began asking me questions. After a lot of questions, it turned out that Mrs. Shota had found my great-uncle and his son and that they wanted to meet me!
The next morning, Mrs. Shota, the three girls, and I drove to my great-uncle’s house, which happened to be six minutes away from my host mom’s house. I was very nervous yet excited to meet my relatives because I had never seen a picture of them and rarely heard about them.
As we entered the house, I was greeted by my great-uncle’s wife and his daughter-in-law, who were both very kind.
However, when I saw my great-uncle, I immediately started to cry because he looked and acted exactly like my grandfather, who passed away two years ago. Through all of the tears, I was able to show my relatives pictures of my grandfather, my brother and my mother. They were shocked by my grandfather’s resemblance to my great-uncle and asked if their personalities were the same. My great-uncle was very interested in the pictures of my younger brother and thought that he was the older sibling because he was taller and bigger.
My relatives were very shocked that I was able to find them because they said that my mother and grandfather had visited them over 30 years ago, but had been unable to get in contact with them.
After all of the laughter, my relatives showed me to the family shrine, where I was able to pray to my ancestors and to my grandfather. Unfortunately, we had to leave my relatives and meet up with the rest of the Kakehashi group, but I promised that I would bring the rest of my family back to Japan to visit.
Whether or not this experience was due to chance or fate, without the hard work and dedication of the JACL, JICE and Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who all worked to make the Kakehashi Project possible, I would not have been able to meet my great-uncle or seen the area my grandfather grew up in. I am also very thankful for everyone in Group D and my supervisors, David Inoue, Sharon Uyeda and Midori Koga, for being so supportive and wonderful!
As a Sansei, I was able to discover some family history that I thought was lost forever and form a bridge that connected me to my ancestry and Japan.
Allison Maryoung traveled to Japan as part of the Winter Kakehashi Project from Dec. 12-19, 2018. She is 22 years old and is currently in her fourth year at the University of California, Los Angeles. Next year, she will be attending UC Berkeley Optometry School.