Guthrie reconnects with family, heritage
Royals pitcher grateful to meet cousins across the Pacific for the first time
TOKYO -- About 40 years ago, Akio Toshikiyo's grandmother asked him to write a letter to Hawaii. Toshikiyo's grandfather had passed away years earlier, snapping the strongest link his family had to its relatives in the United States. His grandmother wanted to reestablish that connection, but Toshikiyo never received a response.
About 30 years ago, Jeremy Guthrie's mother penned her own letter, this one bound for Japan. Her family had received Toshikiyo's information a decade earlier, she wrote, and wanted to stay in touch. Nothing much ever came of that letter, either.
It was not until earlier this month that Guthrie reestablished his family's link across the Pacific for good. First, the Royals pitcher asked a friend to track down a group of people in Mihara, Japan, whom he thought might be his relatives. After Guthrie's friend made contact with his third cousin once removed, he began quizzing her for details to ensure they were actually related.
Still, Guthrie was not completely convinced until Wednesday, when he traveled to Mihara, met Toshikiyo and his sister, and saw a full family tree. There, written clearly on the page, was the name of Guthrie's great-grandfather.
"We were not sure if we were related so we said, 'Let's see,'" Toshikiyo said. "And we saw."
Saturday, Toshikiyo, his sister and her husband branched off from a Mt. Fuji expedition to travel to the Tokyo Dome, where Guthrie started for Major League Baseball's All-Star team against Samurai Japan. They could not be too disappointed that Guthrie gave up four runs in five innings, taking the loss in a combined Japanese no-hitter. (Toshikiyo, a diehard Hiroshima Carp fan who attends half a dozen games per year, likely delighted in it.) Of far more significance was reconnecting to the American half of their family -- and vice versa.
"You're talking about two sides of a family that was literally just cut down the middle," Guthrie said. "They felt the same way my mother did, that they just knew there was more there. It allowed them to connect."
The Mukai family originally split in the 1930s, when Guthrie's great-grandfather moved to Hawaii, leaving his brother behind in Japan. Because Guthrie's great-granduncle passed away shortly thereafter, it became difficult to keep in touch. Guthrie guessed that his great-grandaunt never knew exactly where to send her letters, likely addressing them with "Mukai" and "Hawaii," but no other details. So the years passed with each side of the family vaguely aware of the other, but unaware of how to connect.
"It was two sides that had never known each other, because of one brother's move to the United States," Guthrie said. "They completely lost touch."
When Guthrie found out he would be visiting Japan as part of MLB's All-Star tour, the temptation to reunite became overwhelming. Guthrie broke down the barriers and traveled to Mihara. He saw his great-granduncle's gravesite and visited the home of his third cousin once removed. The two groups merged halves of their family tree. Then they all promised to keep in better touch.
"It was incredible for us," Toshikiyo said. "We are so very much excited, of course."
Three days later, Guthrie's family watched batting practice from the Tokyo Dome field, posing for picture after picture. On one occasion, Guthrie broke away to sign autographs for a group of fans who kept calling his name.
"Big man, huh?" Toshikiyo said, laughing. "He is very big man. But also he is very kind, very intelligent."
Outside of Toshikiyo's love of baseball, the two sides have little in common. Most of the Japanese family members speak little English, while Guthrie speaks no Japanese. But the Royals pitcher has always identified as a Japanese-American, and now has a better understanding of exactly what that means.
"It was very gratifying, rewarding to be able to meet family," he said. "In my family, everybody that I've ever known in my lifetime has been a Japanese-American. Even my mom, all anyone she's ever known has been Japanese-American. So to really grab a hold of the Japanese side of our family, I think it really completes that feeling, that heritage that I've had a kinship toward my entire life."