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Elgin woman finds long-lost relative, and reception fit for royalty, in Japan

Elginites Lori Shimizu Roth Bob Roth (seated) met with long-lost members Lori Shimizu Roth’s family Wakayamcity officials WakayamCity Hall during

Elginites Lori Shimizu Roth and Bob Roth (seated) met with long-lost members of Lori Shimizu Roth’s family and Wakayama city officials at Wakayama City Hall during their trip this spring to Japan. Standing, left to right: Wakayama Coordinator of Domestic and International Affairs Matthew Stevens, Wakayama City Manager Mitsuhiro Yamamoto, Kinuko Wada and her husband, Kazumi Wada. | Submitted photo.

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Updated: July 25, 2013 6:08AM

ELGIN — Lori Shimizu Roth never was very interested in learning more about her Japanese heritage. She can’t read, write or speak the language.

Shimizu Roth is the third generation of her family in the U.S., born and raised in Chicago. Her mother had spent time during the Great Depression in Japan when she was a little girl, and later, time in a Japanese internment camp in the U.S., she said.

But it wasn’t until she married her husband Bob Roth, who is interested in genealogy, that she even began to collect traditional Japanese items, now filling a sitting room in their Elgin home. And it wasn’t until they made plans to travel to Japan for a month this spring that he was able to persuade her to research her family history.

That led to a 60-year-old address, a chance email and a reception fit for royalty halfway around the world.

“They acted like we were a king and a queen. I swear, it was like they rolled out the red carpet for some dignitaries,” Shimizu Roth said.

The Roths had traveled once before to Japan five years ago on a 10-day guided tour in the fall, according to Bob Roth. Shimizu Roth said she has wanted to return since then to see the cherry blossoms in bloom in the spring. And her husband suggested that if they did, she first ought to research her family history.

Bob Roth had gotten interested in genealogy when his daughter became ill. It kept his mind off her illness, he said, and it also gave him a mystery to solve: His father’s birth certificate said he had been born in Russia, but he knew his family was German.

Two years ago, that led him to a distant cousin in Germany, he said. Not long after, the Elgin couple spent four days with him while visiting Europe.

So weeks before they left for their second trip to Japan, he reminded his wife again about the research, and she asked her mother about her family, he said.

Making connections

Midori Wada Shimizu had a 60-year-old address for the Wada family in Wakayama City, Japan.

Bob Roth then found an email address online for the Bureau of International Affairs at Wakayama City Hall, and Shimizu Roth sent a message in English explaining the situation, not really expecting a response because of the language barrier.

Two days later, she received an email from Matthew Stevens, the coordinator of domestic and international affairs at Wakayama City Hall. Because of the privacy laws in Japan, similar to those in the United States, Stevens couldn’t use city records to trace the family, the email said, though he would see if he could do anything for her.

Days later, another email: The coordinator and Wakayama City Manager Mitsuhiro Yamamoto had taken a drive to see if they could find the address, it said. The house numbers had changed slightly in the last 60 years, but after knocking on several doors, they found a man named Kazumi Wada.

Wada is the same age as Shimizu Roth and, according to her husband’s research, her second cousin. He also “was freaked a little bit,” she said.

“He didn’t know he had family at all in the U.S.,” she said.

With Stevens acting as translator, the two long-lost relatives exchanged emails and arranged to meet at the end of the Roths’ trip to Japan in late April.

“It was an amazing, wonderful trip,” Shimizu Roth said.

“We were lucky enough to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom in several of the towns we went to. ... We were able to get in on a festival. And then the third wowie-zowie was we got to see family.”

Meeting family

About a week into the trip, Shimizu Roth received an email from Stevens inviting the Elgin couple to Wakayama City Hall.

That’s where, Bob Roth said, they “pulled out the red carpet.” They met Stevens, his three assistants and the city manager and exchanged gifts according to Japanese custom. Then, in the mayor’s own conference room with a beautiful view of Wakayama Castle, they met Wada and his wife, Kinuko.

“I didn’t think I would be so excited. But I was so excited, I just ran to him, and his wife had a nice smile. I knew I would like her. He was more reserved,” Shimizu Roth said.

They all had their photos taken together by the city photographer and later, a special meal called a “kiseki” at an “unbelievably fancy” restaurant where the city manager had arranged the reservation and the food was “unbelievable and delicious and artfully put on the plate,” she said.

They also visited the Wada house, which Shimizu Roth believes her mother had visited years ago as a little girl.

Her cousin introduced her to his family: his son and daughter-in-law, his two grandchildren and his dog.

He also showed her an old book written in Japanese that contained the Wada family genealogy going back hundreds of years and an ornate Buddhist shrine, positioned under photographs of his adopted parents. Wada is the grandchild of Shimizu Roth’s grandfather’s sister, and he had been adopted by their grandfather’s brother, she learned.

That brought back memories of the simple lacquered black box with a photo of her grandfather in which her grandmother would leave rice and a little bit of what they had eaten for dinner every day, she said.

The next day, without Stevens to translate, the cousins met again to visit the beach and the family’s gravesites, pouring water over and ritually washing the monuments, Shimizu Roth said. She isn’t religious, she said, “but I just did my own little prayer.”

She didn’t learn too much more about her cousin during the trip, she said.

That was difficult because they couldn’t communicate well, she said, but, “They couldn’t have been more generous in so many ways.”

“I had no real expectations or anything, and I didn’t want to seem nosy, to be honest. I just wanted, I guess, to enjoy him.”

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