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Identities divided (Pt. 1): Amerasians recall discrimination, pain growing up in Okinawa

An Amerasian woman shows the only remaining photo of her father, on her phone in Okinawa Prefecture on Feb. 9, 2022. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

NAHA -- It has been almost 50 years since the United States returned Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty. May 15, 1972 holds a deep significance for many in Japan's southernmost prefecture, which spent 27 years under U.S. military rule after World War II. U.S. bases there are a legacy of that long occupation, as are the ills that accompany them: crime, accidents, noise pollution. Dividing lines still crisscross the island; base and non-base, U.S. military and Okinawan local. And for many here born of parents from each side of that line, life has been a struggle with dual identity; "American," and "Okinawan."

    The Mainichi Shimbun spoke to some of them.

    One woman in her 50s living in the southern part of Okinawa's main island says the day the prefecture was returned to Japan is deeply engraved in her memory. She was a grade schooler at the time, and remembers her teacher going around the classroom to pass out red and white sweet manju buns and commemorative medals.

    But the teacher walked past the woman's seat without giving her anything, saying, "You have nothing to do with this, right?" She was stunned, wondering why the teacher had treated her like that. She later realized it was because her father was a U.S. serviceman.

    According to estimates, one in four Okinawans was killed in the vicious ground battles between U.S. and Imperial Japanese forces on the island in the closing months of the Pacific War. In the nearly three-decade occupation that followed, some people resisted U.S. military oppression, trying to free themselves from control by outsiders. But there were also locals who depended on U.S. bases for their livelihoods, from civilian base workers to those serving a U.S. military clientele at bars and restaurants.

    This entwining of the daily lives of Okinawans and U.S. servicemen soon led to many children born between locals and Americans connected to the military. These mixed-race children faced various forms of discrimination and prejudice, and were slapped with the derogatory term "Americker."

    There were no U.S. bases near where the woman grew up, and there were barely any children who could relate to her situation. She had reddish hair and light skin, and was teased and kicked by other children every day. When class ended, she headed straight home. "In the afternoons, I was filled with thoughts of running away, and I couldn't stay calm," she said.

    After her mother became pregnant with her, her father was deployed to a combat zone, and never came back to Okinawa. One time, when she was in middle school, she and her mother were buying groceries at the street market when people yelled at them, "Americker, go home!" They headed back the way they'd come. Later, she heard that a woman working at the market had been hit and killed by a U.S. serviceman driving drunk. "I resented my American blood," she said.

    All through her childhood, her mother would tell her, "If you do something even a little bad, people will find out right away." She even dyed her hair black for a time to avoid standing out. The woman said, "The U.S. military personnel have a strong position in Okinawa. But, the actions of U.S. soldiers and their consequences have all come back to us. We were the weakest people in Okinawa, at the very bottom."

    The Amerasian has just one photo of her father, saved on her smartphone. She heard that her father passed away around seven years ago. Faced with a life or hardship, "I used to wonder why my father didn't come to get me. But thanks to this person," she said of the man in the photo, "I was born. I have a family too, and I'm happy now."

    Eiji Uchima, an Amerasian who said he tries not to get involved in Okinawa's political issues to avoid discrimination aimed at his biracial roots, is seen in the city of Okinawa on Feb. 15, 2022. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

    Eiji Uchima, a 74-year-old resident of the city of Okinawa, is another Amerasian with one U.S. military parent. His Okinawan mother worked at an eatery on-base. His father was sent back to the United States before knowing his mother was pregnant. She even kept the pregnancy secret from some relatives right up to when he was born. Uchima thinks that she was worried they wouldn't have let her have the baby if they'd known.

    When he was in his 20s, Uchima was questioned by police when "an individual thought to be a foreigner" was witnessed fleeing a murder scene. He feels lingering anger over being judged on his appearance alone. "The police can't interfere with the U.S. military, so I'm guessing they resorted to bullying people like us," he said.

    Meanwhile, Uchima also identified as a native of Okinawa. When he was a security guard at a U.S. base, he saw local base workers sneaking out canned food and sugar meant for the U.S. military, but he did not stop them. Looking back, he said, "Poor Okinawans just took a few things, and a big country like America wouldn't have been bothered by the loss at all."

    In his 30s, he started work at a machine equipment rental company, and was put in charge of preparing the venue for a national sports festival in 1987, 15 years after Okinawa returned to Japanese sovereignty. He went the extra mile in his work and his contributions to Okinawa, dispelling people's prejudices along the way.

    However, he still has conflicting feelings about his Amerasian roots. During the Okinawa Prefectural and Japanese governments' clashes over the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the prefectural city of Ginowan, Uchima has been asked, "Which side are you on?" He has kept his own opinions to himself, saying, "Even if I do my best for Okinawa, if I'm told something (negative), I'll get hurt. That's why I stay neutral and don't get involved."

    Sadao Oshiro, left, explains the history of Koza, which has deep connections with U.S. military bases in Okinawa, during a tour of the area in the city of Okinawa on Feb. 20, 2022. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

    Seventy-one-year-old Sadao Oshiro's father was an American engineer involved in military base construction. Unlike the 50-something woman and Uchima, Oshiro has little memory of being bullied. This is because he lived in the city of Okinawa's Koza area, just outside the gate of Kadena Air Base and a neighborhood packed with restaurants, entertainment venues and other leisure establishments. There were other children around in the same boat as him, and he said that his friends would help him when he was having a hard time.

    Kadena Air Base was so much his everyday reality that he felt uncomfortable when he had to hold a Japanese flag during activities related to Okinawa's return to Japan. "Both the Japanese and American flag have a place in my heart. I can't just choose one side," he said.

    For a long time, Oshiro ran a company making signs for the shops and restaurants in Koza. But the once neon-lit town has become much less lively. He now plans tours for visitors and students on school trips in collaboration with the city's tourism association, and tries to convey the special charms of Koza's mixed American-Okinawan culture.

    Oshiro said, "Having biracial roots also leads to having strength to try to understand the other side. Koza and Okinawa can be messengers of peace precisely because they are composed of many races and cultures."

    (Japanese original by Shinnosuke Kyan, Kyushu Photo Department)

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