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Japanese American family’s history now part of ASU Library archives

Ohnick Family Papers document 80 years in lives of parents, 4 children

Black and white archival photograph of parents and four children

Hachiro and Katherine Ohnick with their four children. Ohnick Family Papers, MSS-438, ASU Library.

May 25, 2023

A new archival collection donated by a Japanese American family is now part of the ASU Library.

The Ohnick Family Papers document the lives and experiences of a Japanese American family living across the American West in the 19th and 20th centuries. Beginning in 1848, the collection includes correspondence, photographs, real-estate records, and other materials from Hachiro and Katherine Ohnick and their four children: Ben, Tom, Marion and Helen.

“One of the most amazing and unique qualities of this collection is that it documents the lived experiences of this Japanese American family — father, mother and children — for a span of over eight decades,” said Renee James, curator for the Greater Arizona Collection with the Community-Driven Archives (CDA) Initiative at the ASU Library. “The Ohnick Family Papers gives voice to, and serves as, a memory keeper for one of Arizona’s historically marginalized communities.”

Hachiro Onuki (1848–1921) was born in Japan and lived in the mountains near Nikko. After learning some English from his childhood tutor, he interpreted for American sailors who came to Japan in 1875 to gather materials for the Centennial Exposition of 1876. In lieu of paying Onuki, the Americans offered him passage to the United States.

Onuki arrived in Boston in 1876 to see the Exposition but decided to see the country before heading back to Japan. On the trip out West, two miners who he became friends with suggested Onuki formulate an Americanized version of his name. As Hachiro Ohnick, he began a life in mining and banking that would take him and his family to Nevada, Arizona, Washington and California. While numerous spellings of Ohnick exist, the form provided by his descendants, Hachiro Ohnick, has been accepted as authoritative.

Karen J. Leong, associate professor of women and gender studies and Asian Pacific American studies in the School of Social Transformation, first learned about Ohnick when she was working on a book project about Japanese Americans in Arizona.

“I was told by local Japanese American community members all about Hachiro Ohnuki when I began collecting oral histories as part of the Japanese Americans in Arizona Oral History Project collaboration with the Japanese American Citizens League Arizona chapter,” Leong said. “Mas Inoshita told me about the founder of APS (originally the Phoenix Illuminating Gas and Electric Company) being Japanese American and introducing electric lights to Phoenix. I learned that Ohnuki had married an Irish American woman, which was surprising to me given the anti-miscegenation laws.”  

In the 1880s, Ohnick lived in Arizona and was active in the city of Phoenix, helping found the electric company that would later become APS and serving on the Board of Education. He was naturalized in 1884 and married Katherine Shannon in 1888. They had four children, and the family eventually ended up in Seattle, where the Ohnicks were involved in finance and real estate.

The conversations continued to make connections for Leong, eventually leading to Hachiro’s grandson William Ohnick and revealing a fascinating multigenerational family history. 

Doris Asano, who was working with me to identify folks to interview for the oral history project, connected with William Ohnick, and we drove up north to meet with him,” Leong said. “He shared with us not only the story of his grandfather but also his children, who were quite accomplished as well.” 

A concise biographical history of the family is available within the collection’s finding aid on Arizona Archives Online.

“It is a fascinating family history,” Leong said. “The Ohnicks' daughter Marion was an opera singer known as Haru Onuki. It’s interesting that Hachiro sought to make his name less Japanese, and she did the opposite! And one of the sons, Ben Ohnick, and his wife had been held in a Japanese prison camp in the Philippines during World War II. It’s also important to note that Hachiro’s story was not typical in terms of the alliances and support he received from European Americans throughout his stay in the United States.” 

When the collection became part of the ASU Library, it needed to be arranged and described in order to provide access for researchers and students.

“The two major sections I initially identified were correspondence and photographs,” said Elizabeth Dunham, associate archivist with the CDA Initiative. “I started on the correspondence because that was the larger of the two pieces and then worked through the photographs. When I was finished, I evaluated what I had left to see if it would be better organized as a single series of family papers or as two series, one containing family papers and one Marion’s papers.” 

Dunham decided to separate materials documenting daughter Marion Ohnick’s life and opera career.

“As there was a substantial section of items documenting Marion’s career as Haru Onuki, I created a new series for them and maintained materials having to do with Marion but not Haru with the other family papers.”

As she was processing the collection, Dunham noted how the detailed correspondence between the family members provided insights into the family’s socioeconomic status.

“What stood out to me was the degree to which Hachiro Ohnick being naturalized in 1884 advantaged the family,” Dunham said. “Ben Ohnick’s correspondence in particular mentions several instances in which the family leveraged their citizenship in order to prevent being pushed out of business affairs.”

For researchers and historians, the backdrop of World War I and World War II is also significant.

“Having started out as a military historian, I was also very interested in Tom Ohnick’s correspondence from the Western Front during World War I,” Dunham said. “There was otherwise very little mention of Tom in the collection, so I found these letters to be particularly important.”

And, as archivists often experience, running into missing information or gaps in a collection can spark a lot of questions. 

“I think there are a number of very interesting silences in this collection that should be considered,” Dunham said. “For example, there is very little information about either Tom or Helen Ohnick present. Most of the material documenting Helen is in the context of her traveling with, or otherwise helping, Marion and conveys very little about Helen herself. Similarly, most information about Tom comes from Ben’s correspondence. I was particularly interested in this gap, as Tom seems to have struggled considerably after his deployment and may well have had PTSD as a result of his service in a time when post-traumatic stress disorder was not recognized as a serious illness.”

With the collection now processed, it’s available for the ASU community to study and access. Requests can be made via the library’s Ask an Archivist service to view the materials in the Wurzburger Reading Room at Hayden Library. 

“I would encourage our users and communities to access this collection and share in the experiences and memories of these family members, and to not only appreciate their journey, but also to recognize the care and processing of the materials, and all of the factors that brought this collection to ASU’s Greater Arizona Collection and the CDA Initiative,” curator James said. 

The collection provides an extraordinary opportunity to experience one Japanese American family’s stories in their own voices during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which is celebrated in May.

“We are so fortunate to have this collection here at ASU and to be able to share it with our communities, and we are also so appreciative of Dr. Leong for facilitating the donation, and thank the donor for entrusting us with, as they said, ‘their treasure,’” James said.

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