Opinion & Analysis

The Hui follow a daughter's journey to find her Japanese father

While reporting from the East Coast on the devastation caused by cyclone Gabrielle in February 2023, TV3's Māori current affairs show, The Hui, encountered Migoto Eria – a Tūhoe, Ngāti Kahungunu woman who hadn't seen her Japanese father since she was three years old. With few leads to go on but fascinated by her story, a team from The Hui set out for Japan with Migoto to find her father and, hopefully, reestablish a connection after 40 years of separation. The Hui team - reporter John Boynton, producer Ruwani Perera and cameraman Mark Chamberlin - were assisted to travel to Japan through an Asia New Zealand Foundation Media Travel Grant. In this article, Perera recounts the trip.

In 1983, before the internet, cell phones or social media, communicating with loved ones overseas was mostly done through letter writing. For Tūhoe, Ngāti Kahungunu uri (descendant) Migoto Eria it’s precious handwritten letters preserved for more than 40 years that held the few clues she had to finding her Japanese father.

The story that would change Migoto’s life began after the devastation that cyclone Gabriele inflicted on the East Coast in February 2023.

The Hui were there to cover the damage to communities and met Migoto Eria at Tangoio Marae in the Esk Valley.

During the course of covering the cyclone recovery, we learnt that Migoto hadn't seen her Japanese father Osamu Nakamoto in person since she was three years old. She didn't know where in the world he was or if he was even still alive.

It was then that the idea to try and reunite a daughter with her father came about.

But it’s not a straightforward exercise. How do you go about trying to find a man with a common Japanese name in a country of more than 120 million people?

The internet, Facebook and all social media channels were scoured for information; we even did a DNA test for a family history research but hit dead ends.

The most valuable clues we had to go on were in the letters and an address book Migoto unearthed after her mother’s passing in 2017.

But we knew we would need to travel to Japan for the best chances of finding him. 

At the same time, we contacted a Japanese genealogist who specialises in searching for family members. He managed our expectations – without a birthdate or current address, the task at hand was mamouth, but he wanted to help.

The Hui team in Japan with Migoto Eria (second from right)

So, with our clues in hand and the genealogist already tracking down leads, we set off for Japan.

It was tight schedule – only a week to cover a lot of ground: from Tomakomai in Japan’s north, down to Osaka on the main island of Honshu.

Our first port of call was Nakamoto-san's former address in Osaka, where he was living when travelling between Japan and Napier in the 1980s when he met Migoto’s mum. 

It was a journey with no guarantee of success, but Migoto remained hopeful.

Joining us was a Japanese student studying English who helped with translations. This was vital, with many people we met only speaking Japanese.

We travelled to Amagasaki, near Osaka, to check out a tip from our genealogist.

He had managed to find a phone number of an Osamu Nakamoto who living near one of the old addresses from Migoto’s mother’s contact book. Again, this seemed like a long shot, but one worth taking.

Incredibly, the man who answered the call was indeed Migoto’s father and, what's more,  he was keen to meet his daughter - this was remarkable in itself as our genealogist told us that many people he finds do not want to meet their children.

Migoto Eria  standing in a park with her father, Osamu Nakamoto

Migoto Eria and her father, Osamu Nakamoto

We arranged for Migoto and Nakamoto to meet in the grounds of a temple - it was an emotional moment.

Upon meeting her, Nakamoto presented Migoto with a photo of her at age eight, lovingly kept in a plastic sleeve to protect it after decades. 

It’s proof that Migoto’s mother kept in touch with Nakamoto for several years, and we find out later that her parents shared many letters and phone calls back and forth for many years.

It was a remarkable and rewarding trip. The Japanese people we met along the way were so welcoming and accommodating, and once they learnt about what we were trying to do, were only too willing to help us achieve our goals.

This is a universal story of someone trying to find their whakapapa, told mainly through Migoto’s experience. 

Her heart-warming search captured the hearts of The Hui’s viewers, with currently around 100,000 views across our social media platforms, watched by 30,000 viewers with hundreds of positive engagement and comments.

One viewer’s Facebook post summed up the general feeling: “Tears of sadness of lost years and tears of joy reuniting with your Pāpā continued to flow throughout your story. Thank you so much for sharing and so proud of your Māori and Japanese heritage.”

The Foundation's media programme helps New Zealand journalists cover stories that shed light on Asia and on New Zealand’s ties to the region. We support journalists to build their knowledge of Asia by providing media travel grants, internships in Asian newsrooms and fellowships for senior journalists.

Our media travel grants provide New Zealand journalists with funding to travel independently to Asia to research and prepare stories – to help demystify Asia for New Zealand audiences.