Finding treasure: the importance of private archives

Private archives can offer both great insight past events as well as the impact of those events on personal circumstances.

Private archives provide a personal link to historic events
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

The ever-increasing frequency of obituaries makes it undeniable that we are fast losing our Nisei veterans. With them, we also lose our immediate access to more information about their experiences during WW2.

There are plenty of military archives, well-stocked museum collections and innumerable books, films and documentaries to bear witness to the years of war. The question is how much appeal that all holds for future generations. With no more grandparents who lived through that life-changing period, why would they care?

Moreover, the military collections – vast as they may be – rarely offer insight into the personal psyche of the individual soldier. The civilian experience is entirely excluded from those archives.

Access to private archives

Private archives are the most, well, personal and contain more of an emotional load than military or even academic records. While the latter on occasion focus on the civilian angle, the former rarely do.

Three main factors limit our access to personal records:

  • Recognizing them
  • Their availability
  • Interest level of the finder


How many of us have ever cleaned out some drawers or a cupboard and chucked out whatever papers, letters or pictures that were in there? Simply because we didn’t know what they represented.

Relatives often tend to make poor archivists and can be grouped in two categories. Firstly, there is the group that keeps every little shred of paper, resulting in a cluttered mass. The second group whittles it down so much that nothing of interest remains. Only on rare occasions will a photo have a note on the back, indicating when and where it was taken and who is pictured in it.

Richard and David Fukuda standing on the same ridge as their father, Maj. Mitsuyoshi Fukuda (100th Bn, A Co) with Davide del Giudice, who also provided the archive photo’s. Picture taken during the 2019 Northern Italy tour.

Without context, a piece of paper is just that…


I was reminded of a conversation I had many years ago. I was assisting a friend with research for his PhD thesis. He needed to provide records of certain behaviours by civilians. This to account for the regulations issued by the military authorities behind the front lines. The conversation turned to the plight so many women find themselves in at times of war: sexual relations – voluntary or forced – with soldiers from either the occupying or liberating force.

Because “surely no woman would ever have written down any of this”, my friend considered the request for “first-hand records” unfair. I thought it was perfectly reasonable to think the opposite. Whether to record joy over some little perks that came with the liaison or to register the anguish that it was causing, many a journal entry on the subject no doubt was written at the time. What is not a reasonable expectation in this scenario, is finding any of those diaries, let alone multitudes of them. Women would have had a great incentive after the war to destroy the “evidence” of their actions. “Proof” of either collaboration with the enemy or perceived promiscuity is not something left laying around for anyone to find!


Overcoming the first two hurdles is still no guarantee that personal records will ever make it out of the “back of the drawer” stage. If the finder has no interest in the story or in sharing it with the world, the link is broken.

What’s next for private archives?

The role of the Sansei as archivists and storytellers is becoming more and more important if we want to keep WW2 and the role the Nisei played relevant for Yonsei and beyond.

One of our past tour groups had quite a number of members who took that archivist role quite literally.

Gail Okawa found her grandfather’s collection of letters written from the Santa Fe Detention Station and a photograph of a group of Japanese men.

It prompted her on a voyage of discovery, resulting in the publication of “Remembering Our Grandfather’s Exile”.

Book based on private archive

Not everyone is ready to write a book or finds that many documents, but the curator role can take many forms. Nolan Higa, another member of this group, shared an audio file of an interview given by his father – Thomas Taro Higa – in Japanese. The archives of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai’i hold a transcript file, translated into English. Turning the transcript back into an audio file makes the story even more accessible.

These are only a few examples of how the impetus is shifting to the Sansei to build a bridge from the Nisei experience in WW2 to the Yonsei, Gosei and beyond.

Preserving private archives and providing context for them will play a huge part in keeping the personal connection going. Without that personal connection, past experiences lack the ability to attract new interest and become just another moment in history.

Let us know if you have come across a hidden treasure in the comments!

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