by Michio Taniwaki
I am the oldest son of the oldest son of the oldest son and can trace my ancestry back five generations. My ancestors lived on the island of Shikoku, near a place now called Susaki-shi. They were members of the farming class (meaning they owned the land they farmed on). Many other farmers did not own land. Instead, they were sharecroppers who tended a plot and lived in a house on land owned by another family in exchange for a share of their output.
We can’t call these ancestors the Taniwaki family because back in the early days, commoners did not have family names. Family names were restricted to the ruling class. Family names became required for all persons, not just the ruling class, after the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
Taniwaki is an uncommon name in Japan. However, there are many people around Susaki with the family name Taniwaki. I am not related to most of them. Perhaps it is because people in the area just liked the name Taniwaki (it means side of the valley) and used it for their own families when they were ordered by the government to choose a name. Perhaps it is because in the past one of the ruling families had the name Taniwaki and it was a familiar name.
Before the advent of the government family registry (called koseki), our ancestors recorded all births, marriages, and deaths at the Buddhist church. The priests maintained a registry called kakocho. Records were also kept by the shōya, a community leader appointed by the top-down local political system. Knowledge of ancestors was passed down the generations by stories with the help of the custom of visiting the family cemetery. Landowning families, like ours, maintained their own private graveyards on their property. You would think then that it would be easy to trace our family history. However, churches burn, grave markers wear out, and families move. History can get lost.
Below is my reconstruction of my family tree. If you are one of my relatives, please provide information to complete this story.
Eight generations of the Taniwaki family tree
Shohei is the oldest known ancestor in the family line. He was born in the late 1700s and died in 1856 or 1857. His grave and those of his ancestors are not found in the current family cemetery as explained below.
I don’t have any information, she probably lived from about 1795 to 1860.
Yoshihei is the eldest son of Shohei and his wife. He was born in 1808. He married Iwa. After several years with no children, they adopted a young man to be an heir, a common practice in Japan called yohshi-engumi.
Yoshihei and Iwa later had three of their own children, all sons. When their oldest son became an adult the family transferred their house to the yohshi and moved to a new site about a kilometer (0.6 mile) away where they built a new house. They probably continued to work on the same farm after the move.
Iwa was born about 1815 and died in 1897.
I don’t have any information on any other children Shohei and his wife had.
The adopted son and his wife moved into Yoshihei’s home. After Yoshihei and his family left the property, one of his duties was to maintain the ancestral family cemetery which included the burial plot for Shohei.
My late father told me that his grandfather, Eiji (Yoshihei’s son), once took him to the grave site. It was not in good shape. Stones were scattered about and he said, “This is where our long gone ancestors were buried.”
The eldest biological son of Yoshihei and Iwa was born after the adoption of an heir. Since he could not stay on the farm, he became a carpenter and moved to Hokkaido, which was then Japan’s frontier. There, he designed and built houses using techniques he developed.
A story I heard was that one day, a house this son built had to be relocated. Workers found that unlike most houses, it did not show the normal sequence of construction and was impossible to disassemble. They had to go to him for assistance.
Born in 1842, Eiji is the second biological son of Yoshihei and Iwa. He was 18 years old when the family moved to the site of the new home. Eiji was already a skilled carpenter and designed and built the new house. It was west-facing; the original house was east facing. He earned the title miya-daiku (literally shrine carpenter, a master carpenter) meaning he designed and built projects for the ruling class and would train and supervise his own crew of apprentices. Projects included maintaining local o-miya (Shinto shrines) and building the first primary school in our area when education became compulsory. Eiji died in 1926, the year I was born.
Ushi was Eiji’s first wife. She lived from 1847 to 1904. I don’t have any more information.
After Ushi’s death Eiji married Ito. What I heard about her was not good. While Umetaro (Eiji’s son) and his wife were in America, she mistreated her step-grandchildren Tatsui (my aunt) and Kiyomi (my father). Sakae who was the youngest was lucky, he had gone to America and was with his parents.
Prior to the Meiji Restoration (1868), travel abroad was forbidden. However, after trade was opened between the U.S. and Japan, many men migrated to the U.S. for a chance to make money, mostly in farm labor, logging, or construction.
The last son of Yoshihei and Iwa went to America not to work, but to study photography, which was not possible to learn in Japan. Upon returning to Japan, he went to Hokkaido and opened a photo studio.
Commenting on the two sons who moved to Hokkaido, my dad, Kiyomi said, “Those who lead unusual lives tend to leave no legacy.”
From this point on, all relatives have family names at their birth.
Umetaro Taniwaki 谷脇梅太郎
Umetaro is the eldest child and only son of Eiji and Ushi. He was born on 1869 May 18. He had a reputation as a playboy, a poet, and being somewhat irresponsible.
When Umetaro was 20 years old he was drafted into the army and sent to Asakura near Kochi-shi, the barracks of the 44th regiment. One day, there was a shooting contest and Umetaro won the first prize. He invited leaders of his company to a geisha house where sake was served and geishas danced and sang. He didn’t have money to pay for this and so sent the bill to his father.
War broke out between Japan and China in 1894. Umetaro was recalled and the 44th regiment was sent to Korea. He came out safely, but this experience made him hate war.
About 1900, a burglar broke into a neighbor’s house. A mob caught the burglar and beat him to death. The mob realized the seriousness of the matter. Umetaro, who was not part of the mob, intervened and negotiated with the police. The police agreed not to make a case.
In 1903, Japan was to engage in another war, this time against Russia. Umetaro was afraid he might be called back to the army again, so decided to go to America. It seemed a good idea, he would be safe from the army and wages in America were good.
No records indicate when Umetaro went to America, but it is most likely in 1904, the first year of the Japan Russia war. His gravestone says that he had been in America for 20 years. From other records I know he and Tsuru returned to Japan in 1924.
Umetaro Taniwaki, circa 1910
On his return, Umetaro wanted to build a new house, a large mansion. He drew up the plans but only got as far as building a long retaining wall around the house. He bought pine trees for 15 yen (about $150 in 2010 dollars, but the equivalent of half a month’s pay in rural Japan). People said, “Stupid Ume.” He also bought new furniture, utensils, and Japanese scroll paintings and calligraphy. Although he never wanted to be a carpenter or cabinet-maker, he made a cabinet for his phonograph and records. I was amazed by its quality.
Three years after returning to Japan, Umetaro died on 1927 Sept 19. While on his death-bed, he wrote his final short form poem, it was to say Tsuru will lead happy life. His last words were, “I won’t send for you.” Tsuru who died in 1950 said, “He hasn’t.”
Tsuru [___] ＿鶴
Tsuru was born in1879 and married Umetaro in 1897. They had three children. After Umetaro left for the U.S. in 1904, he was expected to send back money to his family. But after a few years with no remittances, Tsuru wanted to go to America to see what her husband is doing. She took the youngest child, Sakae (Oski), with her. I don’t know the exact year, but a neighbor said Sakae carried a school shoulder bag, so he was probably 6 or 7, making it between 1909 to 1911.
Upon the arrival at the workers camp near Tacoma, WA, she found that all men who were cutting trees and preparing land for development looked weak and in low spirits. Their diet was poor too.
These laborers could not speak English. One went to a grocery store, dropped a rock and said “kokekokko” mimicking a hen to buy eggs. I don’t know if this is a true story, but it is not hard to imagine that their lack of language skills attributed to the poor diet.
Tsuru started to cook for these workers. She saw edible plants growing wild, picked them, cooked them, and served the workers in exchange for cash. “Boys were so happy,” she said.
It became clear that a worker’s camp was no place to make money. Tsuru saw better opportunities for business. She moved the family to Seattle and bought a hotel. How they got the down payment is not known, possibly they borrowed from Eiji who knew that Tsuru had a good business sense. When she was younger, Eiji was having a problem collecting money from one of his customers. Tsuru volunteered to go and collect the money and she did it.
After some success in Seattle, Tsuru moved her family to Sacramento and opened a restaurant catering to Japanese.
One day at the restaurant, they bought a barrel of miso. Inside the barrel was a metal can. Soon a few Chinese appeared and took it with them. Tsuru never saw the content of the can but it was obviously part of a smuggling operation.
The restaurant was busy and Tsuru worked hard. But not Umetaro, he only pursued enjoyment such as playing the samisen. Eventually, Tsuru could not take any more so she sent him home. But he disliked the monotonous, old, and poor country, and he traveled again to America.
In 1924, with some money in their pockets, they both left America.
After Umetaro died in 1927, Tsuru did not want to live on the farm. Instead she moved to Susaki-shi and bought a dry goods store. Actually buying is not accurate, women could not own real property. She loaned money to a local merchant and the store was mortgaged. The store carried dry goods such as dried beans of many varieties, dried seaweeds, sugars of many colors, straw hats, chōchin (paper lanterns), and such. Her price was competitive and the store always had customers.
Tsuru also bought several rental houses in Taiwan, which at the time was a territory of Japan. Again, for legal reasons, the property was registered under the name of her son-in-law who was made the landlord (more on that later).
About 1932, Tsuru began selling a medicine for jaundice based on an old Taniwaki family remedy. The story is that once upon a time a pilgrim who traveled from temple to temple became ill and one of my ancestors helped him and nursed him back to health. The pilgrim showed his gratitude by giving our ancestor the formula for the medicine. Since then our family had been dispensing the medicine whenever asked to.
To make it a business, Tsuru began to advertise in a wide area. She produced 100 or more signs to display on the roadside. One day, the police came to the store and told her that the signs were not allowed. “Your medicine could not be as good as the signs claim.” The police may have exceeded their authority but an appeal would be prohibitively expensive. Tsuru gave up.
During the war, the Japanese government reduced the number of retail outlets and Tsuru had to close her store.
After the war, under the occupying force’s order, Japan passed a sweeping land reformation law. All farmland not cultivated by land owners had to be sold at below market prices to the tenants. Tsuru lost most of her farmland and the rent it produced.
Tsuru died in 1950.
Matsu Taniwaki 谷脇松
Matsu was born in 1871 as the second child of Eiji and Ushi. She married Yasukichi Yokoyama (横山安吉) in 1895 and they moved to his farm. I believe they were both alive at the end of the war. I don’t have information on any children they had.
Tomi Taniwaki 谷脇富
Tomi is the youngest child of Eiji and Ushi. She was born in 1880. She had a mental disability and so was not a good candidate for marriage. In 1907, Eiji arranged a marriage between Tomi and Heikichi Ichikawa (市川平吉). They divorced a year later without any children and she returned to the family home.
After the deaths of Eiji (1926) and Umetaro (1927), Tsuru moved to Susaki. She (or perhaps Umetaro before he died) arranged Tomi to marry Unkichi Ichikawa (市川運吉) in 1927 and gave them a small plot of land. Tsuru asked them move into and take care of the now empty family home until Kiyomi returned (more on that later).
I don’t know if Heikichi and Unkichi were related to each other or not. My guess is they were not as Ichikawa was a common name in our area. Tomi died about 1940.
The stories of generations 5 through 8 continue in a Feb blog post.
[Update1: Corrected or added several birth dates and wedding dates. Corrected kanji errors and grammar errors. Added references to koseki and kakocho records. Yoshihei moved his family to a new site for a home, but continued to farm at the old site. Asakura is a town near Kochi-shi, not a city in Fukuoka prefecture. Only one house was broken into by the burglar. Tsuru cooked for the workers at the camp near Tacoma but did not open a restaurant there. Added info about Matsu and her husband. It was Tsuru, not Eiji, who asked Tomi and her husband to move into the house. Added comment about ambiguity of Tomi’s husband’s name.]
[Update2: Clarified that Heikichi and Unkichi are actually two different men. Updated family tree.]
[Update3: Asakura was annexed by Kochi after the war. Tsuru was born in 1879, updated family tree. Heikichi was not a neighbor. Land was given to Tomi for her marriage with Unkichi, not Heikichi.]
[Update4: Removed names of some relatives from family tree at their request. Added link to part 2.]