For Minako Toguchi, every summer brought an identity crisis.
As a child growing up in Okinawa, the site of the largest ground battle to take place on Japanese soil during World War II, she was often taken on school trips during the summer to war memorials, including including the Himeyuri cenotaph in the south of the island where the deaths of more than a hundred schoolgirls who worked as war nurses are commemorated.
Photo shows Minako Toguchi standing near a shisa statue, an Okinawan folklore creature believed to protect people from evil spirits, in Naha, Okinawa on April 21, 2022. (Kyodo)
But each time she listened to war survivors talk about their memories of fierce fighting against American military forces, she became aware of her skin color – slightly darker than her peers – and the fact that she had roots. family on both sides, given that his father, an African American, is a former American soldier.
“I often wondered, ‘Am I allowed to be here? Am I hurting their feelings?'” said Toguchi, 27, born in the United States and who moved to Okinawa with her Okinawan mother after her parents divorced when she was little. “I wondered if the people I share my roots with were such bad people.”
Toguchi is one of many Okinawans of mixed parentage who struggle with identity issues due to having former or current U.S. service members as family members. With nearly 100,000 civilians losing their lives in the fighting on Okinawa – about half the total death toll there – resentment over the US military presence concentrated on the island, which hosts the bulk of US military installations in Japan, is deep.
Even half a century after the island returned to Japan after American rule in 1972, Okinawans born to foreign parents continue to face prejudice and discrimination. Indeed, due to long-lasting tensions between local communities and grassroots, many believe that the level of prejudice is often more blatant than in the rest of Japan.
Local residents have repeatedly called on the government to ease the island’s burden of hosting the bases. One of the bases, which is to be moved from the middle of a densely populated residential area to another part of the prefecture, has become a focus of protests with calls to move it completely out of Okinawa.
But Tokyo has largely turned a deaf ear to the demands, acknowledging the island’s geographic importance to Japan and the United States, its ally, in the face of China’s growing military presence. Their frustrations have sometimes been directed at Okinawans of mixed descent, who are generally assumed to be related to base personnel even if they are not, experts say.
Between 2011 and 2020, an estimated 200–300 children are born in Okinawa each year to an American parent, mostly soldiers or civilian base employees.
Many children of such parentage, also known as Amerasians, end up being raised by single Japanese mothers after divorce or separation, experts say, causing them to feel detached from the culture. of their father while living as semi-strangers in a close-knit environment. Okinawan community.
Photo shows Ai Oyafuso holding a paper cup at his coffee stand in Motobu, Okinawa on April 21, 2022. (Kyodo)
Ai Oyafuso, a 39-year-old shop owner whose father is an African American former US soldier, says being called names such as “Amerika” and “Kuronbo” (the N-word in Japanese) was common in the school when she was growing up.
A resident of Motobu in northern Okinawa, she recalls even old people, whom she thought were supposed to be sensible and thoughtful, calling her such names while walking down the street.
“I was born and raised among Uchinanchu (Okinawaans) in Okinawa, but I was never Uchinanchu myself,” said Oyafuso, who was separated from her father when she was 4 years old.
Now married with four children, she says the situation hasn’t changed since she was a child. Several months ago she was shocked to learn that her daughter’s primary school classmates had smeared ink on their skin during calligraphy class and said: ‘We are black’ .
“When I was a child, I believed that society would become free from discrimination when I grew up,” Oyafuso said. “But I feel like I’m starting my life over again.”
Having a father who once worked for the U.S. military always left her with mixed feelings about their presence: while she was repeatedly taught to cherish peace at school while growing up in Okinawa, turning one’s back on the US military presence was like denying it a father, she says.
But when the deployment in Okinawa of the American plane Marine Osprey, known for its frequent accidents, was decided about ten years ago in spite of strong opposition from the inhabitants, it recovered from its internal conflict.
“I was finally able to see this as two different issues,” said Oyafuso, who has participated in local anti-base protests. “It has nothing to do with my background. I am opposed to bases as long as they are used in wars.”
“It’s important for someone like me to be part of the dialogue,” she said. “Rather than running away from what is uncomfortable, I want to be able to sympathize with the people of Okinawa.”
Toguchi hated when her classmates teased her about her curly hair at school. Traumatized by the experience, she tried to straighten her hair from when she was in elementary school until she was in middle school. “I wanted to be like everyone else,” she said.
She was also briefly enrolled in a school inside a US base in Okinawa when she was in third grade, but was unable to fit in and left after several months. She remembers a black classmate telling her, “You’re not black.
Frequent war lessons at Japanese school also left her almost desolate because of her roots. But she gradually overcame these feelings by actively attending ceremonies and events that commemorate the deceased whenever the opportunity arose.
“I thought it would be wonderful if I could make a change for the better through my prayer,” she said.
Encouraged by the Black Lives Matter movement, Toguchi, who now works as a model and dance instructor, experimented with an Instagram livestream to talk about her experience as a person of mixed parentage in Okinawa a few years ago. It was watched by more people than she expected, about 50, and received a lot of positive feedback, she says.
“The biggest problem is that Japanese society is not aware that people like us exist even though there are many of us,” Toguchi said.
“We didn’t raise our voices because we were scared, but it’s important for us to speak up so people recognize us,” she said.
Naomi Noiri, associate professor of sociology at Ryukyus University, says the situation surrounding people of mixed parentage in Okinawa has improved compared to 50 years ago, as outright physical violence against them has decreases.
But she points out that they still suffer from stereotypes based on their appearance, such as assuming they are naturally able to speak fluent English or are athletic.
To provide a proper education for these children, five mothers established the AmerAsian School in Okinawa in 1998.
At the school, which serves children from kindergarten through 9th grade, students learn to be bilingual and bicultural through a curriculum that combines Japanese and American styles of education.
Although there are already international schools in Okinawa that teach English and Japanese, AmerAsian School provides a psychologically safe environment for children of mixed parents and teaches them to be proud of their roots.
“They are both Japanese and American,” said Ayako Komine, the school’s former principal. “They don’t necessarily have to choose one or the other. They can be as they are in school.”
Emphasizing the importance of educating them as culturally not “half” but “double”, Tsukasa Nakada, current director, stresses that “building trust is extremely important” so that they can push aside prejudices and assert their opinions.
Janey Sachi Fukunaga is pictured at her company’s office in Naha, Okinawa on April 28, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Janey Sachi Fukunaga) (Kyodo)
Janey Sachi Fukunaga, a 27-year-old graduate of the school, says she felt a sense of relief to be surrounded by students who shared a similar family background.
“Everyone had a different hair color, hairstyle and skin color, so I wasn’t even aware of my physical appearance,” said Fukunaga, a child of a Japanese mother and an American father. who was formerly in the US Army. “I was understood in English and Japanese and loved it.”
Fukunaga says she appreciated the opportunity to interact with people with diverse life experiences – some are stronger in English and others in Japanese – as it allowed her to contemplate her own direction in life by listening to their stories. Such luck is hard to find in a Japanese school, she said.
When she was in school, she decided she wanted to get a job that used her language skills, and she just did: she currently works as a tax consultant in the Okinawa office of an international accounting firm. .
Having mastered Chinese in addition to English and Japanese, Fukunaga says she is looking forward to transferring to the company’s Singapore office in July.
Despite remaining prejudices, Toguchi, who is four months pregnant, says she never plans to leave Okinawa as it is her “birthplace”.
The mother-to-be said she hopes her child grows up without discrimination.
“I just want my child to understand that everyone is different,” she said.
Photo shows AmerAsian School in Okinawa in Ginowan, Okinawa on April 21, 2022. (Kyodo)