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Mixed-race Okinawans begin to find voice amid tensions over US bases

This photo shows Minako Toguchi standing by a statue of a shisa, a creature from Okinawan folklore believed to protect people from evil spirits, in Naha, Okinawa, on April 21, 2022. (Kyodo)

NAHA, Japan (Kyodo) -- For Minako Toguchi, every summer would bring on an identity crisis.

    As a child growing up in Okinawa, the site of the biggest land battle to take place on Japanese soil during World War II, she was often taken on school trips during summer to war memorials, including Himeyuri Cenotaph in the south of the island where the deaths of more than a hundred schoolgirls who worked as war nurses are commemorated.

    But every time she listened to war survivors talk about their memories of the fierce fighting against U.S. military forces, she was made conscious of her skin color -- slightly darker than her peers -- and that she has familial roots on both sides, given that her father, an African American, is a former U.S. soldier.

    "I often asked myself, 'Am I allowed to be here? Am I hurting their feelings?'" said Toguchi, 27, who was born in the United States and moved to Okinawa with her Okinawan mother after her parents' divorce when she was little. "I wondered if the people who I share my roots with were such bad people."

    Toguchi is one of many Okinawans of mixed parentage who wrestle with identity issues due to having former or current U.S. military personnel as family members. With close to 100,000 civilians having lost their lives in the fighting on Okinawa -- about half the total death toll there -- resentment toward the concentrated U.S. military presence on the island, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan, runs deep.

    Even half a century after the island's return to Japan from U.S. rule in 1972, Okinawans born with one foreign parent continue to face prejudice and discrimination. Indeed, because of long-lasting tensions between local communities and bases, many believe the level of prejudice is often more blatant than in the rest of Japan.

    Local residents have repeatedly asked for the government to alleviate the island's burden of hosting the bases. One of the bases, due 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 outside Okinawa altogether.

    But Tokyo has largely turned a deaf ear to the demands, recognizing the island's geographical importance for Japan and the United States, its ally, in the face of China's expanding military presence. Their frustrations have been sometimes vented on Okinawans of mixed parentage, who are generally assumed to be related to base personnel even if they are not, experts say.

    Between 2011 and 2020, about 200 to 300 children were born in Okinawa every year with one American parent, mostly soldiers or civilian base workers.

    Many children with such parentage, also known as Amerasians, end up being brought up by single Japanese mothers after a divorce or separation, experts say, leading them to feel detached from their fathers' culture while living as semi-outsiders in a closely-knit Okinawan community.

    Ai Oyafuso, a 39-year-old shop owner whose father is an African American former U.S. soldier, says being called names such as "Amerika" and "Kuronbo" (the N-word in Japanese) was common in school when she was growing up.

    A resident in Motobu in northern Okinawa, she remembers even senior citizens, who she thought were supposed to be sensible and thoughtful, calling her such names while walking on the street.

    "I was born and raised among Uchinanchu (Okinawans) in Okinawa, but I was never Uchinanchu myself," said Oyafuso, who was separated from her father when she was 4.

    Now married with four children, she says the situation has not changed from her childhood. Several months ago, she was shocked to learn that her daughter's elementary school classmates had smeared ink on their skin in calligraphy class and said, "We are black."

    "When I was a child, I believed society would become discrimination-free by the time I became an adult," Oyafuso said. "But I feel like I'm living my life all over again."

    Having a father who once worked for the U.S. military always left her with contradictory feelings about their presence: while she was repeatedly taught to cherish peace in school as a child growing up in Okinawa, turning her back on the U.S. military presence felt like denying her father, she says.

    But when the deployment in Okinawa of the U.S. Marine Osprey aircraft, known for its frequent accidents, was decided about 10 years ago despite strong opposition from residents, she got over her internal conflict.

    "I was finally able to think of it as two different issues," said Oyafuso, who has participated in local anti-base demonstrations. "It has nothing to do with my background. I am opposed to the bases as long as they are used in wars."

    "It is important for a person 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 Okinawan people."

    Toguchi hated it when her classmates would tease her about her curly hair in school. Traumatized by the experience, she tried to straighten her hair from when she was in elementary school until she was in college. "I wanted to be like everybody else," she said.

    She was also briefly enrolled in a school inside a U.S. base in Okinawa when she was in third grade, but she could not fit in and left after several months. She remembers a black classmate telling her, "You are not black."

    Frequent classes about the war in Japanese school also left her feeling almost apologetic because of her roots. But she gradually overcame such feelings by actively attending ceremonies and events that commemorate the deceased whenever there was a chance.

    "I thought it would be wonderful if I could make a change for the better through my prayer," she said.

    Under the encouragement of the Black Lives Matter movement, Toguchi, who now works as model and dance instructor, experimented with a live broadcast on Instagram to talk about her experience as a person of mixed parentage in Okinawa a couple of 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," said Toguchi.

    "We hadn't raised our voices because we were afraid, but it's important for us to speak up so people recognize us," she said.

    Naomi Noiri, associate professor in sociology at the University of the Ryukyus, says the situation surrounding people of mixed parentage in Okinawa has changed for the better compared with 50 years ago as outright physical violence toward them has decreased.

    But she points out that they still suffer from stereotypes based on their appearances, such as assuming that they are naturally able to speak English fluently or that they are athletic.

    To provide education tailored to such children, five mothers established AmerAsian School in Okinawa in 1998.

    In the school, which accommodates children from Pre-K to Grade 9, students are taught to be bilingual and bicultural through a curriculum that combines Japanese and American styles of education.

    While there are already international schools in Okinawa that teach English and Japanese, AmerAsian School offers a psychologically safe environment for children of mixed parentage and teaches them to be proud of their roots.

    "They are both Japanese and American," Ayako Komine, former principal of the school, said. "They don't necessarily have to choose one or the other. They can be just as they are at the school."

    Emphasizing the importance of educating them as culturally not "half" but "double," Tsukasa Nakada, current principal, points out that "building confidence is extremely important" for them to be able to fend off prejudice and assert their opinions.

    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, hair style and skin color so I wasn't even conscious of my physical appearance," said Fukunaga, a child of a Japanese mother and an American father who was once in the U.S. military. "I was understood in both English and Japanese and I 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 a chance is hard to come by at a Japanese school, she said.

    She had decided she wanted to have a job that utilized her talent in language when she was in school, and she has just achieved it: she currently works as a tax consultant at an Okinawa office of an international accounting firm.

    Having mastered Chinese in addition to English and Japanese, Fukunaga says she cannot wait for her planned transfer to the company's Singapore office in July.

    Despite the remaining prejudice, Toguchi, who is four months pregnant, says she never plans to leave Okinawa as it is her "native home."

    The soon-to-be mother said she hopes her child will grow up free from discrimination.

    "I just want my child to understand that every person is different," she said.

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