Friday, March 1, 2024

Searching for Osamu: A Kiwi Woman’s Search for Her Birth Father

Working for current affairs show The Hui, Sri Lankan-born Ruwani Perera has covered scores of stories that pull at the heartstrings – but the yarn she’s telling on the episode that airs Monday 27 November is one she’ll never forget. It involves a long-lost father, a trip of a lifetime to Japan and an unlikely, emotional outcome. Here, she shares how she came to tell this story in her own words.

Everyone has a story, and those stories can come from the most random places. 

This has been a guiding light of my career in journalism for more than 23 years and why I find my work immensely satisfying and what drives my love of storytelling.

A story that will screen Monday 27 November on Three’s The Hui is a perfect illustration of this, in a special show called – ‘Letters to Migoto’.

It all began in late February this year when I travelled to Napier to report on the devastating effects of Cyclone Gabrielle on the community living in Tangoio, in the Esk Valley. Their marae, kitchen (wharekai), dining room and surrounding buildings were destroyed by the category three tropical cyclone, ripping out the beating heart of this community.

My story follows the team from Heritage New Zealand who are here to assess the damage done to the precious carvings, pou (pillars) and handcrafted tukutuku panels that line the walls of the meeting house. I interview Migoto Eria, a representative from Te Papa museum who is also part of the specialist assessment team. Her name is curious to me, and she explains that her mother is Māori and her father, Japanese.  We get talking and I find out she has never been to Japan nor seen her father since she was a child.  I preface my questions with “if you don’t mind me asking” but Migoto is very open to the conversation, and quite fascinated that myself and a colleague are so interested in her background.

Migoto and Ruwani

Since her mother’s death six years ago, Migoto unearthed many letters written between her parents and has pieced together tidbits of information about their relationship but the whereabouts of her father are a mystery. She isn’t even sure if he is still alive.

Discussing this story with a colleague sparked an idea for us to try and locate Migoto’s long-lost father.

The task at hand is a tough one: finding someone in a population of more than 120 million people. The only clues we have are a few addresses in her mother’s contact book, that are 40 years old. She also has no idea of his date of birth, his name, Osamu Nakamoto, is as common a name in Japan as ‘Brian Brown’ and we don’t speak Japanese (apart from words and greetings from when I studied the language at high school and Uni). 

Migoto has a handful of photographs of her father. She estimates he would be in his early seventies and the image she has of him frozen in time is the one of him with a beard, dressed in a checked shirt holding her as a baby in his hands.

But Migoto does have the beautifully crafted, hand-written letters that gives her an insight into a long-distance relationship that began when Osamu Nakamoto was working as a ship’s engineer onboard a vessel that sailed between Japan and Napier transporting New Zealand logs across the Pacific Ocean. This ship made regular trips back and forth, and it was during this time in the early 1980s that love blossomed between Migoto’s parents. Migoto’s father named her, and the meaning behind her name is ‘magnificent’. 

It’s fascinating to go back to a time before the internet, social media even the humble text message and see how two people from two different cultures and countries communicated once upon a time.

It never ceases to amaze me how generous and courageous people are sharing their deepest thoughts and feelings, facts and stories that are deeply personal, opening themselves up to our endless questions and requests. But the emotional toll this search for her father has taken on Migoto isn’t lost on us.

We travel to Japan to be on the ground and we visit the seaport city in Japan’s north where he father set sail to New Zealand. Her mother’s contact book and the address written on many of his letters direct us to Osamu Nakamoto’s old home and Migoto is overcome with emotion standing outside, imagining her father living in this house. I am hugging her as she weeps on my shoulder and try to relieve some of the great sadness she is feeling. 

Throughout this assignment Migoto and I share stories of losing our mothers in recent years, and she hears stories of my close relationship to my father. I wonder what it would be like not to know who my Dad was, where he lived or any details of his personality or image. At this moment we are more than journalists reporting on a story. We are very much along on this emotional journey to help fill the void in her whakapapa.

“Everyone needs to know their heritage and where they come from,” an old friend of Migoto’s mother tells us. It’s what shapes us, our formative years are moulded by our parents – ‘you have your Dad’s walk’, ‘you’re stubborn like your father’ – what some of us take for granted are things Migoto has never experienced.

There are no guarantees of any tangible resolution for any of the people who share their stories with The Hui, for example: Will the Police re-open their case? Will they get the justice they’ve been fighting for? Will Migoto find her father? 

What matters to the whanau in our stories is by telling their stories they feel a little lighter, relieved that someone is finally listening, interested in their unique situation. 

See how it ends: Monday 4.30pm – live to newshub.co.nz and The Hui FB page Tuesday after Newshub late. Or check it out on air on Three Wednesday 5pm

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