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Identities divided (Pt. 2): Okinawan Amerasians fight racism, embrace their Black roots

Ai Oyafuso, who makes original clothing using local plant dyes and runs a cafe at a market, is seen in Motobu, Okinawa Prefecture, on Feb. 21, 2022. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

NAHA -- Okinawa, Japan's southernmost prefecture, was under U.S. military rule for 27 years after World War II. Even after its return to Japan in 1972, it has continued to be host to most of the U.S. military bases in the country. Okinawans have rejected the United States' power over their islands, but some children have been caught in the middle: those born between local parents and Americans affiliated with the bases.

    The stories of these Amerasians are often painful, laced with prejudice over their appearance and otherness. And the group to suffer the worst of this hateful bullying are those with Black ancestry.

    Ai Oyafuso, who makes original clothing using local plant dyes and runs a cafe at a market, is seen in Motobu, Okinawa Prefecture, on Feb. 21, 2022. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

    One Amerasian woman in her 50s living in the south of the main island told the Mainichi Shimbun that her father, a U.S. serviceman, had both Black and white roots, though it wasn't obvious from his appearance. Her Okinawan mother did not know he had Black ancestry, and was surprised by her newborn daughter's dark skin tone. Her mother complained that she had been "cursed with bad karma." At age 5, the woman moved in with her maternal grandparents, but was still the target of discrimination outside the home.

    At elementary school, when she handed copies to classmates, they told her, "Don't touch them. They'll get dirty," and someone dumped muddy water into her backpack. When locals began protesting U.S. B-52 bombing missions flown over Vietnam from the U.S. military's Kadena Air Base near her home, kids yelled, "B-52 go home!" at the school gate. And sometimes she did.

    Once, she bought some U.S.-made bleach with her allowance, dissolved it in the bath and used a brush to scrub herself, trying to turn her skin white. "Won't it get white?" she wondered. She felt like her whole body had been scalded, but her skin stayed dark. She found it increasingly tough to go to school, and she would hide under the bedcovers, crying. "I wanted to run away from the world," she recalled.

    After graduating from junior high, she went to a private high school far from her hometown. There, for the first time, she met people who had gone through the same things. "It was like paradise," she said. She continued to face discrimination and prejudice at every turn, including when she got a job and when she was married. However, she also recognized that, "because I went through that hardship, I'm capable of being kind, and strict, with people."

    Ai Oyafuso, a 39-year-old living in the Okinawan town of Motobu, has a Black father who was once in the U.S. military. Although she was born after the end of direct U.S. military rule in 1972, since she was young she has still been subjected to painful racist barbs from people she doesn't know. That pain has grown new dimensions as her four children suffer similar experiences.

    Several months ago, her eldest daughter's third-grade classmates painted their skin with calligraphy ink and crowed, "We're black!" Her eldest son, in fifth grade, has also been called "gaijin," which literally means "outsider" and is used to refer to foreigners.

    "I can ignore words aimed at me. But I cannot tolerate it when they're aimed at my children," she said. She has approached the school and talked with the children responsible for the racist acts as well as their parents, urging them to be open to diversity.

    Oyafuso has also joined protests against the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, to the Henoko district of Nago, also in Okinawa. However, when she hears others speak with open antagonism toward the U.S. military, she feels uncomfortable and out of place. She said, "I've asserted my identity as an 'Uchinanchu' (Okinawan), but society and those around me will not let me be one. I've always been Black in their eyes."

    It was the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement that rippled through the United States and across the world in 2020 that made her feel more positive. Oyafuso also joined BLM demonstrations near Kadena Air Base with family and friends, holding signs condemning anti-Black racism.

    Through creating information pamphlets on Black history and Black Lives Matter, she gradually began to feel good that she'd been born Black. When she was young, Oyafuso used to be insecure about her hair, but she now enjoys styling it with colorful braids.

    "I feel much more at ease now than the time I wanted to avoid being seen as a Black person," she said. She said hopefully, "Although society doesn't change easily, I'd like Amerasians to get educated about diversity and live without blaming themselves. After all, it's always the side engaging in the discrimination that is 100% in the wrong."

    (Japanese original by Shinnosuke Kyan, Kyushu Photo Department)

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