“You Can’t Honor People If Their Names Are Spelled Wrong”: Ancestry Resources and the Making of an Accurate Names List

Family History
24 April 2024
by Duncan Ryuken Williams

Today, Ancestry announced the free availability of the first comprehensive list of over 125,000 persons of Japanese descent who were unjustly imprisoned between December 1942 and January 1948. 

Originally compiled and published by the Irei Project, the list of names is helping to ensure the facts and the experiences of those who were unjustly imprisoned by the U.S. Army, Department of Justice, and War Relocation Authority (WRA) are preserved for future generations to learn from. 

The following blog post was penned by Duncan Ryuken Williams, director of the Irei Project, to shed light on the origins of this comprehensive list of names and how Ancestry records can be used to accurately represent and honor the people whose names and experiences are reflected in this collection.

Image courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration: 
Records of the War Relocation Authority, 1941 – 1989

The forced removal and unjust incarceration of over 125,000 persons of Japanese ancestry in temporary detention stations as well as internment camps run by the U.S. Army and the Department of Justice (DOJ) and concentration camps run by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) during WWII have been widely recognized as an egregious violation of the constitutional ideals of due process and equal justice under the law. Despite two-thirds of the community being U.S. citizens, the entire group was deemed un-American, or even anti-American.

The wholesale removal of an entire ethnic community from their homes into desolate camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guard towers hallmarked the denial of equal justice. We created the Irei Project to reckon with this injustice through a simple act of recognition: the honoring of names, an acknowledgment of each person and their individual life story. 

Although there have been myriad well-researched books, articles, documentary films, and exhibitions about the WWII incarceration, I was surprised to learn that no one had ever created a comprehensive list of the names of every individual incarcerated in the roughly 75 wartime camps. We didn’t even know just how many individuals had been incarcerated. Was it 110,000, 120,000 or 125,000? The only way to settle that question was to do research at the National Archives and other institutional holders of government-created camp rosters, train transfer lists, or internee cards. Government sources had to be supplemented by materials from formerly incarcerated individuals who had in their family collections, internee-created directories of their fellow prisoners, often handwritten in the Japanese language.

We began our efforts in 2019 to comprehensively account for every single person, not leaving anyone out and rendering names accurately, as a way to provide dignity to each person who experienced the unjust incarceration.

The Irei Project became dedicated to compiling the names lists in a truly comprehensive manner, cross-referencing the various sources to make sure we were not leaving anybody out. We fairly swiftly ascertained that over 125,000 individuals had been held in the 75 camps, but before we could consider making this list of names public, someone told me “You can’t honor people if their names are spelled wrong.”

To truly make this names project something worthy of our project’s goal to console the spirits of those who have gone before us and their descendants, we needed to ensure that when there were spelling inconsistencies in the camp rosters, internee cards, and other primary sources from the period, we would not only need a nomenclature convention, but would need to verify how to accurately render a person’s name.

That’s when Ancestry came into the picture. Whenever there was a discrepancy in the wartime sources, our team turned to various sources found within Ancestry – principally the 1940 U.S. Census, WWII draft cards, birth and marriage certificates, as well as naturalization and social security records – to double and triple check names spellings.

One such example was when the well-known Japanese American actor, George Takei, of Star Trek fame, who had been a young child during WWII came up in the Rohwer camp’s roster as “Hosato George Takei” and in the Tule Lake camp’s roster as “Hozato George Takei.” I was able to find his 1937 Los Angeles County birth record on Ancestry, which lists his name at birth as “Hosato.” Technically, the kanji characters for that Japanese name can be properly romanized as either “Hosato” or “Hozato,” so being able to verify that his birth record on Ancestry confirmed the Rohwer camp’s spelling, allowed us to choose “Hosato” as his authoritative Japanese name.

Tule Lake Final Accountability Roster: TAKEI – “Hozato” George

Rohwer Final Accountability Roster:  TAKEI – “Hosato” George

California Birth Index: TAKEI – “Hosato” George

As the generation of even the youngest camp survivors approach their 80s and 90s, we are increasingly reliant on the many collections within Ancestry to verify these matters.

We believe that through this research effort, the Irei Project has been able to create the most accurate and comprehensive compilation of not only the names, but all the camps where an individual was incarcerated – typically most people were incarcerated in at least two camps, but many were in three, four, or even seven camps during the course of the war.

This project is not a static nor complete one. The premise of the Irei Project is that we need the public to make sure we not only remember the injustice of the incarceration, but their help in repairing the wounds of that history. By accurately recording the details of those who were incarcerated during this time, we continuously correct the historical record for generations to come.

Genealogical research on Japanese American families, especially from the WWII era, will almost certainly surface the Irei Project collection’s name rendering, birth year, and the camps that perhaps a sibling, parent, aunt or uncle, or grandparent were incarcerated in. Explore and search the new collection and others like it for free here: https://www.ancestry.com/search/collections/62744/

When paired with the almost 350,000 records related to Japanese incarceration already available for free within the Ancestry ecosystem, this comprehensive collection of names will allow users to better find their family and explore the other record collections from this time period. With just a name, date or incarceration location, this collection can surface even more information from previous free collections, including: 

Now, the Irei Project’s efforts to accurately record the names, birthdates, and locations of the over 125,000 people incarcerated during this period and memorialize those who experienced wartime incarceration will also serve as a catalyst for even more family history discoveries on Ancestry.  

I look forward to the ways in which this collection of names can enrich both genealogical and historical research.