Hisao Magario was a Japanese businessman who lived in the Bay Area, on and off, from 1907 to 1926. From the 1920s until his death in Japan in 1960, Magario kept meticulously detailed diaries, filling 40 journals with his personal experience of the 20th century.
These precious journals now reside in Stanford’s East Asia Library, thanks to a donation from Magario's descendants in Japan. The donation includes all of Magario's journals, as well as journals from his wife, and family photos.
"These are the building blocks from which history is written," says Stanford American History Professor Gordon Chang. "We don't have many rich sources to tell us about the life of everyday people. To have 40 years of diaries is amazing."
Magario's diaries tell of a young man keen to avoid military service in Japan. An immigrant to the United States who started off washing dishes, Magario eventually launched a thriving, trans-Pacific retail chain selling hot imports, like silk and fireworks.
He might have spent the rest of his life in the Bay Area had it not been for growing anti-Japanese sentiment in California ahead of World War II. Magario returned to Japan. But his wife's family stayed on to manage the business, until they were forced to liquidate and relocate to an internment camp in Utah.
Following in her great-grandfather's footsteps
"He came from a respected family," says Magario's great-granddaughter, Miki Nakajima, whose own personal journey would bring the story of her family to Stanford's archives. "In the U.S., he built his own life."
In 2010, Nakajima left Tokyo to study at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. That's when she started hunting for her long-lost American relatives, a search that would reveal a family torn apart by the conflict between the United States and Japan.
The toddler in the above photo is Nakajima's grandmother, Nobuko Magario. "I knew that my grandmother was born in Oakland, but I didn't know that much about it, other than that she had two passports," Nakajima says.
She started with a Google search of an old address in the Los Angeles area and kept digging. Eventually, she found Magario’s grandnephew, Steven Yoda.
The American link
Yoda was born and raised in Southern California. His family relocated there from the Bay Area, and Yoda says the two families lost touch after the U.S. government interned Japanese-Americans in prison camps during World War II.
"I would hear little snippets about the family history," Yoda says. "My father was born in San Francisco in 1938. There were multiple shops, started and bankrolled by this mysterious 'Uncle H.' Everyone in my family was thankful for him."
Now a postdoctoral fellow at the Carnegie Institution for Science, Nakajima told Yoda about the diaries around the time her grandmother was losing her memory, and with it, her ability to explain Magario's diaries as well as those of his wife, Fusai. "We didn't know what to do," Nakajima says.
Yoda, who wrote his undergraduate honors thesis at Stanford about the Japanese internment, suggested the family donate the materials to his alma mater. "I wish I knew enough Japanese to mine it myself, but I'll have to leave it to the scholars," Yoda says. "Many Japanese-Americans have lost the story of how their families got here. I feel very lucky that one of my ancestors left behind a written record."
Fortunately for Stanford, Yoda contacted his former thesis advisor, Gordon Chang.
Chang urges Americans of every background to reassess the family memorabilia gathering dust in their basements and attics. Too many people toss out what historians consider potential treasure troves. "Pass it along to others who will be able to use it in a wonderful way," Chang says.