Militarized Mama Amerasia – an International Women’s Day Reflection
Today, according to a few sources, there are an estimated two million Amerasians–children and adults of local women across Asia who have been sired by United Statian military and civilian men and abandoned by the men. If we are to include Ameri-Pacifics–those born in the Pacific and South Seas Islands, the numbers would, of course, be higher. Often, in these stories, the harrowing and rough stories of Amerasians are told, and must be continued to be told. But the stories of the mothers, are backgrounded.
Mixed-race issues are prominent in the media these days. However, I want to differentiate between the term Amerasian, and mixed-race clear. Amerasians are born in contexts of war and occupation, usually identifying an intense position between local women and United Statian men, between local men and United Statian men, and between local men and women with each other. In contexts of defeat and occupation, the United Statian men would usually have control (always contested, of course) over the local populations carte blanche, and what might be considered “criminal” activity by the occupiers would go mostly unpunished. In addition, in the pursuit of justice and territory, locals were not allowed onto U.S. military bases or installations, while U.S. personnel were free to go anywhere, except where the military would establish rules.
Although most of us think of “militarization” as that of weapons and military institutional uniforms and codes, I will speak mostly to how militarized forms of governance–in this case the U.S. military “democratic” imperialism–enters and establishes a rupture and new beginnings that include the violence and sexism of the conquering nation within the local, privileging military mentalities.
Local women have diverse kinds of relations with U.S. personnel in the context of the military–especially in contexts of conqueror and conquered. In the case of my mother, for instance, who was a woman vying for American men along with thousands of other Japanese women during the U.S. Occupation of Japan, had to make herself seen and heard by Americans. She would hang out with her friends at local establishments and on the streets where the soldiers frequented. She began taking English lessons so she could communicate better with them. After finding these lessons difficult, she dropped out and focused on learning from her friends who spoke the pidgin often associated with U.S. military G.I.s and similar across all Asian nations, even though the languages and cultures were completely different. For instance, Mama-san–a combination of words born in Japan by American G.I.s since the Philippines-American War, referred to mothers of girls the American men were interested in, as well as for madams of prostitution houses and “entertainment” establishments catering to the Americans–was also used in the same way in the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea, Cambodia, Thailand because soldiers were often shipped from one Asian military base to another, lumping all of the “Oriental” women in the Pacific together in a racist/sexist totality, creating a certain kind of language–a pidgin that many veterans and military men taught each other and might recognize even today.
While men and women were seen to have sex in the outdoors in the streets, in the bushes and in the nearby wooded area sometimes, in the smaller towns, the big cities most often had recreation establishments with places “in the back,” where the owners would let hook-ups happen. For the Japanese women, and of course repeated in the Korean Occupation after the Korean war with Korean women, and in Southeast Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam) even though in Indochina, there was no “defeat” and therefore a different mentality by the locals in relation to the Americans existed, differing from Korea and Japan. There were also forced sex through blackmail, and rape.
There were thousands of reported cases of rape. It is assumed by almost everyone, that there were far more unreported cases and therefore the numbers reported could be seen as a bare minimum. It must be repeated that along with the general attitudes of women reporting rape in all countries–which almost always favored the men, this was intensified by the fact that the overlords were not going to admit moral failure or to sacrifice the false notions of “democracy” that Americans went to war for in the first place. Nothing would tarnish that. So sexism, American nationalism, and Orientalism became a huge reason why Japanese (and other Asian women in their locales) would not bother reporting the cases. They would know when a friend’s case would not go anywhere and the women would then be called, not only “liars” but “lying whores.” In addition, Japanese notions of shame still ruled.
Thousands of Japanese women (and other Asians on the military bases in their locales) worked in the Occupation offices and military base establishments, mostly as secretaries and accountants, guides and entertainers. Many women were beaten if they did not succumb to an American officer’s advances. Often, the women were threatened with job loss if they didn’t have sex with them. It is not like today, where most people think of “freedom.” For Japanese women, they often had to become the only ones providing for their families, with access to U.S. PX goods not available in a starving and bomb-devastated Japan with nothing to sell and without the means to create things (in the early days of the occupation).
In the official court records of the U.S. Occupation period and into the late 1950s, the record of some of the gruesome incidents are numerous. The raping of physically disabled grandmothers and the repeated beating and killing of young girls are plentiful. When a U.S. military truck driver was taking a woman home and she refused his advances, he punched her in the face and threw her out the truck into a ditch. These are just examples. In one of the very few books that inform us on sexual violence in the U.S. military international bases, is Occupying Power: Sex Workers and Servicemen in Postwar Japan by Sarah Kovner. In this book a few of the official controversies over statistics, silence, and the incidents of extreme violence give us a glimpse into the precarious struggles that ensued in Japan, between women, the new Japanese nationalism, and U.S. Occupation administration and their contested ways of dealing with sexual violence by their own men against the locals, and the moralities established.
In addition, Japanese women would endure some abuse from Japanese men, who felt emasculated as losers in the war, and who could not find work except for the Americans to build their bases and run errands for the Americans, feeling that the Americans were also stealing their women. In some cases, Japanese men felt contradictory toward the women they wanted, or the women in their families, forcing them to befriend Americans to be able to survive and get goods from the bases that weren’t available for the Japanese. In some cases, Japanese men were reported to have forced their girlfriends or sisters or daughters, to “trap” the American soldier, and then a group of Japanese men would corner and beat them as unwanted filth in their country that reminded them of their loss in war and stealing the women. Of course, there were some murders. In many cases, American men and Japanese women who were together were also found murdered.
The long tradition of having women in other shores by colonial European travelers and soldiers, is of course repeated by the U.S. military and other men who travel. Often, what happens is that the woman and the child are abandoned. Men have American girlfriends and/or wives back in their hometowns. Because the stigma of being a woman against the established moralities of pure women are pretty much the same everywhere, how local cultures silence, manipulate, and punish the women and the children are diverse. In Asia, almost across the board, social ostracism and poverty are almost the rule. Racism, sexism, and national identity play a heavy role in entitling locals to practice their ostracization. Usually, the children are considered foreign and often-times considered “enemy” and “conqueror-much-maligned.” Mothers had to survive severe forms of prejudice, including emotional and physical abuse.
In Japan and Korea, there have been many stories of honor killings. Usually a male member of the family, sometimes the father or older or younger brother, or an Uncle, will hunt the woman down and kill her. Records of forced hanging, stabbing, and being buried alive have been told by the women themselves. In other cases, the woman is treated fine by the locals but the Amerasian child must be hidden or mostly hidden. There have been several stories told of underground rooms where they would keep the Amerasian children. The mothers’ lives, then, would often involve hiding food and water and sneaking at night into these rooms. In my own story, the early part of my young childhood was being hidden from the locals. I was not allowed to play outside alone until I was a bit older. These stories have been repeated from the Philippines War at the turn of the twentieth century, through World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam/Indochina War, and in some cases, through the 1980s. Perhaps this still goes on in a few places today.
In contexts where mothers are not hiding and living life along with others, there have always been open-minded locals who did not care, while others would go out of their way to be cruel to both the mother and the child. Others would do it by excluding the mothers from jobs, or forcing menial and lowly labor on the mothers and treating them especially cruelly. In many cases, the mothers became adept at defense if anyone would come after their Amerasian children. I remember quite a few incidents, both in Ōme (the town where I was born) and on Tachikawa Military Base, where my mother defended me with scary aggression. Once in a bookstore, a woman spoke down to me and addressed me as kurombo (black sambo–but in the context of how she meant it– it really was nigger). My mother began rolling up her sleeves and began screaming at her. A crowd gathered. I remember being more afraid of my mother at that point, more than that racist woman.
For mothers of Amerasians who, like the case of my mother, married their men and moved onto military bases in Japan, there was the issue of American racism. My father is African-American, and in a miitary that was in the throes of desegregation, not yet fulfilled. For instance on the military base, my mother and I were at the commissary. Two white women came up to my mother while we were shopping and said: “You ain’t nothin’ but a nigger bitch.” My mother’s face turned into something monstrous as she glared at them. Even though she didn’t speak too much English, each of those words were very familiar to her by now, having hung around the American soldiers and often their wives, in the bars and on the streets. She began rolling up her sleeve and puffing out her chest and moving her legs apart in a sort of warrior stance. Just then an older white man came up and asked if we were having problems and the two women hurried away. When my mother and I used to laugh and talk about that story, I always complimented her on how much I appreciated her and her protectiveness and how tough she was for a small woman barely 5-feet tall. I remember those two white women were much taller and bigger.
If we think about what kind of women in Asia, would, for instance, have willing relations with American military men, there are many reasons, of course. Ann Stoler‘s books on colonial desires are great works to read to think about how desire in the contexts of ruler and ruled are informed and linked and formed. In the case of Asia, there were many women that were already “different” or outsiders in the nations and cultures, and the American identity seemed much more of a fit. Or perhaps it was thought by the women that, at least, they must try, because they were leading lives where they were already considered outsiders before the arrival of the Americans. In the context of defeat in war, as well, some of the mothers of Amerasians have said in conversations I’ve had with them, that the foreign soldier often looks “sexier” than the local men. I would say that the contexts of power often informs what we desire.
In the Philippines and Korea and Vietnam, just as in Japan, women who dated or who were seen hanging out with, or engaged with American military men, were seen as two-pronged and contradictory. Some feel on the side of calling those women whores, western princesses, women of the western night, white chasers and black chasers (referring to the race of the American man). Others would see that it would be best that the woman leave the local country and go with the American to the United States. Others felt both at the same instance. Still others, didn’t care about who their daughters fell in love with or married. For others, whose daughters were raped and children were born, it was a bit more violent and dark, although I have heard of some families being completely sympathetic. In many cases, the entire family would be ostracized and/or scorned by the neighborhood in the case of the daughter being raped. In most cases, however, the open-mindedness was also mediated by neighborhood scorn, economics (getting a job or promotion), and other considerations. The effort that women had to go through to be the ideal mother according to their local cultures, was tremendous. In many cases, the women would just not bother. This brought more problems. Whether they would abandon their own children or even kill them, was also a choice that had to be considered in the conditions of postwar poverty and devastation, hopelessness and despair.
Half of my mother’s friends, whose men did not return from being abroad, killed themselves after killing their children. In Japan, the practice of oyako-shinju (parent-child suicide), was thought to be a way for mothers to stay with their children in death, rather than be separated and controlled by hopelessness. To be clear, the statistics on Amerasians only include those abandoned by their American fathers in the Asia-Pacific. I am a privileged one among many, whose fathers returned to marry the mother and brought us to America. A few did stay married and in Japan. The same seems to be true in the other Asian nations.
In Korea, transnational adoption became a huge economic institution during the years when their Amerasians and their mothers, wanted, like Japan, to export the problem. Amerasians were considered un-Korean, and Koreans were supposedly incapable of being multicultural, is really the essence of the argument (it is really about refusing more than capacity). Sadly, this way of national thinking still exists in Korea, along with much of Asia. Japan is softening a bit, but still a long way to go. For Korea, the adoption institution has adopted out hundreds of thousands since the end of the Korean War. Through the 1980s, Amerasians were the principle racial-national identity group most numerous in these places at the time. Since then, there are more transnational Asians, between wealthy travelers of other Asian nations, and Koreans, who have become the most numerous.
In all of these places of Asia, where women have given birth to American military babies in the context of occupation, many women let their children be adopted, or to pay traffickers to take their children to America to search for their fathers. Many of these women secretly longed to hear from their children in America, but tried to cut ties so that it would be easier for their children in their new lives in America. Often, their families would admonish them to forget them, often humiliating them. For other women, they were lucky to have friends and/or family members who had compassion for their loss. There were mixed feelings on all their parts, as without their children present, their lives would be easier without the presence of mixed-race children that would bring the violence–verbal and/or physical, upon them. Relief and longing in the same space would be heavy toll. Many mothers wound up taking drugs and overdosing, or committing suicide, or leading haunted lives, while others lived a so-called “normal” life and secretly longing to see their children. In some rare cases, they were able to be re-united with their children, often with the children staying in America working and saving money, becoming old enough to bring their mothers to America. Others marrying when older, were fortunate to have partners who helped to bring their mothers to America. Other children lost touch with their mothers and wanted to find them and would return to Japan or Korea. Often, their mothers would never be found, or were found to have passed away.
In addition, the human trafficking business has trafficked many Filipino and Southeast Asian women to Japan and Korea as indentured labor, to work as laborers in sweatshops and/or work as prostitutes. Many children are born of these situations. In this climate, the Amerasian issue becomes backgrounded and people today hardly think of it. The Amerasian issue, linked with United Statian military power and patriarchal impunity, continues to be an issue, but since there are not any wars there, the spectacular quality of mixed-race-ness has been muted. Along with it is the scrutiny of continuing U.S. military power in non-local cultures, the ecological ruin, and the control of Asian women’s bodies in their own local cultures. This also maintains the position of the U.S. as dominant in Asia, exacerbating and intensifying the role of China and India as Asian nuclear powers that want to not be under the yoke of American self-entitlements and global force and the rising amount of protests against the U.S. military bases and their policies that link their own elite governments colluding against their own peoples.
When I remember my mother, who passed away in September 2011, I am reminded of her strength and resilience along with her vulnerability and trauma. Without me telling her story, no one would know of either her life, or the conditions in which she was able to survive and thrive and live. When I speak with other Amerasians, there is a seeming silence. The tendency for those of us who may know of some of the lives of our mothers, is to present it as past, to present it as something of “that generation.” Because those situations continue today in others’ lives should, I hope, have some meaning and perhaps bother us. Making the condition of U.S. sexual freedom and U.S. military impunity as a given in international politics, is something that cannot be excused. Accountability and transparency should be the least of what we must demand. We must also acknowledge Japan’s residues of imperialism and the sexual freedoms they enjoy in other nations’ countries and the condescending attitudes that Japanese men would have toward non-Japanese Asians in regards to the use of their bodies. Although nations may be privileged (Japan being a client state of the U.S. and therefore receiving privileges brought to them by the U.S.), the women, no matter what nationality, do not seem to have access. Mothers are seen the same. Women are seen as mothers, essentially, in this unchanging neo-colonial globalizing world.
I say this in thinking about how ending the sexual desires and relations in international travel is almost impossible, and that we must at least demand accountability. Are women’s bodies only to be thought as receptacles for heterosexual male pleasure? Are women’s bodies only to be carriers of children that men have no responsibility for? Are women only to be considered a product of their local cultures without those cultures having some relation to United Statian power (condescension, high morality /hypocrisy, and impunity)? How do we pay attention to the silences when we want to know our mothers’ stories? How do we acknowledge traumas that are not really personal as much as sociological and historical? How do we stop the victim mentality in looking at trauma, and more to the formation of identity, mothering, and the roots of intensities and violences located in various histories, coming together in moments? Empowerment.
To men and boys, and all people everywhere – How are we to account for the suffering we create in the world, at the cost of women’s and girls’ lives (and as a matter of course, our own)? As we form male (or another) identity, what role does heterosexism play in the privileging of military impunity and masculinities in national identity? Are different worlds possible? In that world, what does power look like? We are certainly not equal. How does a centralizing misogyny play into the construction of patriarchal cultures, with an almost and seemingly “natural” connection to militarism and violence? How are we to see our mothers as something to leave and discard and violate, in modern societies? Between nationalism (usually performed as a way to both empower and also to resist other nationalisms as well as internal forces), racism, sexism, heterosexisms, and identity politics, how are we both to live through as well as create new societies that honor our mothers and difference, in general, for the future? Do we even care?
I pay tribute to my mother, and all women and girls. I especially want to bow to the women of Amerasians who have and continue to struggle with the world’s ignorance and denial and must go it alone.