Fred Armisen Learns A Surprising Twist On His Ancestry On PBS Series ‘Finding Your Roots’

Fred Armisen has been a staple on Saturday Night Live for many years, with a knack for playing quirky and amusing characters. On a recent episode of Finding Your Roots, hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Armisen discovered a number of surprising facts that shattered what he thought he knew about his ancestry, including that he is not one-quarter Japanese, as he has believed his entire life.

Armisen is actually one-quarter Korean.

The actor previously believed that his paternal grandfather Kuni Masami was Japanese, which led to Armisen’s mistaken belief that he was one-quarter Japanese.

Kuni Masami was a famous dancer and choreographer who was best known for for his work in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. It was here, while performing for the Nazis that Masami met Armisen’s grandmother and had an affair. Masami is highly regarded in Japan – there are even museum exhibits dedicated to his work.

Armisen was slightly disturbed to find out that his grandfather worked for Nazi Germany as an entertainer, but was then amused to find out that Masami might have been acting as a spy. A document from the United States Office of War Information hints that Masami was actually working as a secret agent for Japan while he was working in Germany.

Fred Armisen is actually Korean, not Japanese.
Fred Armisen's grandfather Kuni Masami performs in Berlin, Germany on May 30, 1937. [Image by PBS]

The document reads that Japan “…is using as a special agent a certain Dr. KUNI who is an interesting type of agent. He is a Japanese dancer and appears from time to time in the different capitals of Europe, always being charged with special duties which he covers by his profession. He is one of the most clever agents they have.”

The United States Foreign Affairs Officer in Istanbul who wrote that document believed that Kuni Masami was gathering information on Turkish and Southern European activities for Japan.

Armisen was visibly perplexed by these revelations about his grandfather, stating that at that point, Gates could have told him anything about his grandfather and it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibilities.

Once Gates dropped those bombshells on Armisen, you’d think he was done. But not by a long shot. After Gates and PBS dug into Masami’s history, they found out that Kuni Masami wasn’t Japanese at all.

An announcement in a 1933 newspaper at the time announced the debut of a new dancer named Masami Kuni, whose original name was Pak Yeong-In. Pak Yeong-In is a Korean name. Likely because of the heightened tensions between Japan and Korea at the time, Masami took the Japanese name in an effort to blend in.

Fred Armisen reacted with near disbelief.


“So am I Korean? No… Well, that changes every…many many things. I was going to say everything. I mean I guess everything. I’m a quarter Korean? You understand that I tell people…that I have interviews where I say I’m a quarter Japanese…I’m not Japanese at all…”

A shocking discovery for Fred Armisen who has repeatedly told people he is a quarter Japanese
[Image by PBS]

Pak Yeong-In has a genealogy that still has connections to modern day Korea, with descendants still in South Korea today. The Pak family is considered upper class in Korea, and thanks to family records, Armisen is now able to verifiably trace his ancestry back to the 1600s and with written records back 63 generations to 69 B.C.E.

After Armisen discovered this information, he took a trip to Japan to visit the museum dedicated to his grandfather. Fred spoke briefly about visiting the exhibit.

“I think that I have a lot more in common with him than I ever imagined. His aesthetics – I love the way things look. I feel exactly matched with him. It makes sense to me that he’s my grandfather. To see his face and to see him in his costumes…I felt very very directly connected to him.”

[Featured Image by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images]