Dream of the Water Children: The Black Pacific

Assimilating the Black Japanese — Japan and the US: Reflections

Japanese postwar orphanage for mixed-race Children 1952. Photo by Margaret Bourke White, Life Magazine
A scene from a Japanese postwar orphanage for mixed-race Children 1952. Photo by Margaret Bourke White, Life Magazine

During the immediate postwar, the Japanese government and newly formed civic leaders, were in heated debates on what to do with the mixed-Japanese children left by US, British, Australian, and other allied nations’ military men, with the majority being by the US Americans.

Some of the Japanese establishment wanted to ship all mixed-babies off to an island and be guarded and kept there, then shipped to the US when they were older.  Another major Japanese government faction argued to keep them in Japan but have their own separate schools and living quarters.

Another faction of the Japanese government wanted to integrate them into Japanese society and teach them to ‘become fully Japanese,’ and forgetting their parentage.

Yet another faction wanted to educate the Japanese public on prejudice and racism and to work on a more diversity-conscious Japan while integrating the mixed-children into Japanese society, honoring their differences and circumstances.

In one document I read, these factions became heated and violent during a government meeting.  Indeed this was a huge issue in Japanese society at the time.

Well, they were never integrated.  They were left to themselves.  Prejudice and racism continued in most cases, and the children were beaten up, scorned, humiliated, excluded.  Many could not take their classmates and their teachers anymore, and dropped out of school.  Others couldn’t afford school anyway and were abandoned.  So they lived in the streets.  They, of course in order to survive, turned to stealing money, food, tobacco, anything they could get their hands on.  For this, they were scorned, often beaten and humiliated and sometimes killed.  No one cared, so many of the mainstream usually think, so they could play out their domination and violence against these mixed-kids.  Not only that.  Their mothers, if the mothers chose to keep them, were just as scorned and humiliated.  It took no exaggerated amount of courage to decide to raise their mixed-babies alone.

Neither the US military or the US government wanted anything to do with it.

Even though the issue was the sexual and emotional, related to the satisfaction of the US soldiers in Japan, it was and still is clear that the responsibility of pregnancy was not something the US military was wanting to be responsible for. After all “boys will be boys” and the military was ‘special’ and they ‘protected’ America so the ‘boys’ need their needs met and that ‘s all.

In fact, not only were the mothers and their mixed-babies ignored in Japan, the military worked hard to keep the fathers who DID WANT TO RETURN or STAY in Japan with their Japanese girlfriends, apart from their Japanese women.  So these soldiers were shipped away and kept away.  It was not always successful, of course. A soldier was told that he could not return under their commanders’ orders.  Many went AWOL and returned.  Others married their Japanese girlfriends through Shinto priests, even though Shinto and other indigenous religions in Japan were banned by the Occupation.

My own parents were married when I was only 4 years old, after years waiting for my father to find someone who would be courageous enough to go against the US military’s orders and marry him and my mother.  This was done while my father was in the US and my mother in Japan.  My mother never fully believed that her lover, my father, would actually return to Japan and take them away to America.  My mother wanted to escape Japan.

Orphanages and Christian missions grew in numbers.  The mixed babies and children were kept in separate orphanages, or with majority mixed places, away from the other Japanese and other war orphans in Japan after the war.

In the 1960s and 70s, I began to meet quite a few Black Japanese, working in manual labor or on the streets, hustling.  If they were asked if they were ‘ainoko’ or ‘konketsuji,’ they told me that most often, they refused that identity and said they were Korean or Okinawan or from the South of Japan (where many Japanese of other mixed heritages of Japan were known to live, or were simply a bit darker in skin-tone).   It was better to be one of these scorned people in Japan, that I had just mentioned, than to be a mixed-American–especially a mixed-Black.  Certainly mixed-Black were not considered Japanese, even though it was the only cultural identity these children knew.  It is not this way today in Japan, since the ‘enemy’ is not a part of a cultural memory with the younger generation.  But the race-prejudice is reinforced by Japan’s media images of Blacks transferred to them from America (criminals, homeless, musicians, athletes, less intelligent, over-emotional, over-sexed, fat-lipped, big-nostrils, physical, scary).

For those of us who had come with our mothers and fathers to the US, it is another kind of assimilation.  For others, who were adopted out of Japan and into African-American adoptive homes, there are others stories.  Most did ‘fine’ becoming American.  There was no need to know Japanese or to be Japanese, or even remember it.  Indeed some may have been taught to remember their Japanese-ness, but most were often raised with an African-American community identity.  This ‘fine’ is an identity without memory, full of ghosts, filled with a coming longing.

Others such as myself, had mixed experiences. We came to the United States in the 1960s–my Dad, my Mom and I.  My father did not mind me speaking Japanese.  But I know that many of my friends were forbidden by the dominant parent (or both) to speak Japanese at home, and so over the years, they forgot their Japanese language.  The only thing usually left for them, and for some reason not a ‘threat’ or a ‘reminder’ for American fathers or Japanese mothers who wanted to forget their own Japanese-ness, was Japanese food.  Japanese food was most often kept as a part of their heritage.  But that’s it.

I think my father didn’t mind me speaking with my mother in Japanese because he was gone most of the time, away from home.  The military shipped him to the Vietnam War, then all over the United States after the war.  My mother and I were left to ourselves most of the time.  My father was the breadwinner, but that was it.

I would venture to say that most, if not all, Black-Japanese experienced racism in the US in those days.  For me, in New Mexico, I got ‘nigger’ and ‘Jap’ and ‘Gook’ or ‘mutt,’ as well as ‘Slant-eye’ ‘Fu-Manchu’ and other comments and names about my being mixed-up, confused, impure.  Later, primarily beginning in the  70s, this turned to ‘exotic’ and ‘you have beautiful skin.’  Not as painful but just as lonely (since I was not there but as a figure of their own racialized notions of people).

In the US, isolation is individuated and then celebrated. The disconnected individual (except for acquiring a nuclear family or something similar to it), is celebrated and exalted in America.  The individual is left for themselves and called ‘successful’ if they ‘make it’ as a middle-class (or wealthy), powerful, entertaining, ‘good’ person with no problems with the house and white picket fences (the American dream).  There are many who search now, for their identity, because there are ghosts there.

In Japan, many generations I know, do not even know they are Black Japanese. Their parents refused to call themselves that.  They survived and raised their children never to mention it.  Today, most Japanese think they are all living in Okinawa.  They are still non-Japanese. Others celebrate their heritage privately and don’t bring it up much.  In both the US and Japan, it is ‘unimportant.’ Being invisible is a ‘plus.’  In the US, we may call ourselves ‘Black Japanese’ or ‘Blasian’ or ‘Mixed Race,’  but it is a conversation-piece without much history because much of the time, most I have known, tell me that their parents rarely talked about their earlier days (the immediate post-war).

Generations of Black-Japanese born in the 1970s and later, have very different experiences from those of the 40s and 50s, for instance.  This has much to do with the silence, the forgetting, the trauma.  Now there are many Black-Japanese who ‘blend in’ to other cultures or who are anomalies, who do not know about their parents and grandparents’ pasts, and do better not to bring it up. Some of us who are privileged enough to be in touch with some of the memories, may be able to put this history into the world, as I attempt.  Others struggle and search for it, perhaps never to find.  First, we must encounter our own need to care, much less search.  This is the perfect modern person, without history. Assimilated.

Assimilation in the US is individual isolation.  Assimilation in Japan is group isolation.  The effects are similar.  The difference may be in that the US was the victorious nation and most of the Black-Japanese I know, who came to the US in this period, were taken care of through a Christian missionary  or non-profit organization who adopted them out.

In both Japan and the US, many of the adoptive families as well as the orphanages, may have treated them with abuse, hidden from the records.  They were not ‘safe.’  There were famous places such as the Elizabeth Saunders Home for Mixed Children, and two and three Christian organizations in Japan, that did an excellent job, in general, although always in a controversy.

And I must mention that many of these babies did die.  Some were left in alleys, on trains and train stations.  Some were left in garbage cans.  Some were killed before their mothers killed themselves.

These stories repeat, from before Japan’s postwar and after.  When reading accounts of Mulattos and Creoles in the New World, or the abandoned Black-Chinese children in China in the colonial period, or the thousands left in the Philippines from the Spanish Invasion through the Philippines Revolutionary War and continuing to today (yes, today the US military continues), the Korean and Vietnam postwar, the pattern continues.

A large percentage of Black Japanese, are usually found in the entertainment business (music, modeling, movies, etc.), or are athletes, or are found in prisons and homeless shelters, and in manual labor and minimum wage jobs.  Black Japanese are, then, moving and living in the structures of US and Japanese society as ‘black.’ It is not because of blackness that these conditions and separations exist. Society is structured to make these constricted paths happen.

Assimilation tends to lead to becoming invisible.  We may become the ‘other’ group, or the interesting individual doing our thing. Since mixed-race children are not nations that can rise up against a government, human rights laws are extremely difficult to use but necessary.

There needs to be more attention paid.

There are over 2 million ‘Amerasian’ children in the Pacific-Asia region.  If we include those around the world, it is more.  If we consider the statistic of the millions of Amerasians, we should understand this number as those considered ‘orphaned’ by the US soldiers in the world today, and who are most often considered stateless.  This is not wartime in Asia, yet ‘war’ is always present because these are children and their Asian lovers who were abandoned by the American soldiers.  Worse than before, since there is no law against their marrying local women as it was during my own parents’ time (Post World War II and Post-Korean War).

It has also been proven and noted in every study, that in the Amerasian population, mixed-Black babies and children, are treated more condescendingly and brutally than their white mixed counterparts.

Keep in mind, however, people like me are not in that study, although parallels may exist.  I was not orphaned.  There are tens of thousands, or more, that are of my generation.

It is a perennial issue, yet most Black-Japanese I know, do not know, nor do they care, about the present-day Amerasian issues.  They do not know their own histories.  When one is raised to be alone, to be capable of making money and to construct a nuclear family, and to follow an internal logic through isolated individualism, connection to history and community are not important. It is both a blessing and a curse.

The Amerasian issue is about the larger story of colonialism and militarism in the Pacific.  That is a major reason that this issue is largely silenced.

It is perfect assimilation, to which those like myself resist.

Americans and Japanese, after all, are benefiting from ignoring this issue, yet are not in the long-run.

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