Cul­tural, iden­tity clashes tied to U.S. troop pres­ence

Many in Ja­panese is­land linked to troops; many want bases out

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Chico Har­lan

CHATAN, Ja­pan — These days, when Melissa Tom­lin­son de­scribes her fraught re­la­tion­ship with the United States, she speaks in English, the lan­guage she once re­jected.

She grew up on the is­land of Ok­i­nawa. Her mother was Ja­panese, and her fa­ther was an Amer­i­can who served in the U.S. Army, came to Ok­i­nawa, fell in love, fell out of love, then fell out of touch.

“I had plans to track him down, find him and punch him in the face,” said Tom­lin­son, 22. “I just wanted to fig­ure out my iden­tity.”

Tom­lin­son’s fam­ily ten­sions il­lus­trate the com­plex cul­tural clashes that dom­i­nate the pol­i­tics of Ok­i­nawa and, lately, re­la­tions be­tween the United States and Ja­pan as they cope with a ris­ing China and a bel­liger­ent North Korea.

For more than 60 years since the end of World War II, Ok­i­nawans and U.S. troops sta­tioned on nearby bases have de­vel­oped deep, pas­sion­ate and gen­er­a­tion-span­ning ties that com­pli­cate po­lit­i­cal and diplo­matic de­bates about the fu­ture of the U.S. mil­i­tary on the is­land.

Those pas­sions have re­cently claimed the head of one Ja­panese prime min­is­ter, Yukio Ha­toyama, who had called for the Amer­i­cans to be booted off Ok­i­nawa, and caused his suc­ces­sor to sharply tone down his party’s as­sertive stance to­ward the United States.

Many Ok­i­nawans de­mand clos­ing the Futenma Ma­rine Corps Air Sta­tion. U.S. of­fi­cials, cit­ing its prox­im­ity to North Korea, China and South­east Asia, in­sist it re­main in Ok­i­nawa.

The cur­rent plan, which Prime Min­is­ter Naoto Kan says his govern­ment will honor, calls for Futenma’s even­tual re­lo­ca­tion to a less pop­u­lated re­gion in the north of the is­land. Kan apol­o­gized last month for the “heavy bur­den” fac­ing Ok­i­nawans.

Many res­i­dents of this Pa­cific is­land, which hosts more than half the 47,000 U.S. troops sta­tioned in Ja­pan, com­plain most com­monly about the noise, con­ges­tion and crime. But emo­tional blood ties and cul­tural con­fu­sion am­plify those con­cerns. Tor­mented by her iden­tity, Tom­lin­son said she has tried to kill her­self a cou­ple times in the past two years.

Tom­lin­son said she strug­gles to con­vince her­self — and oth­ers — that she is truly Ja­panese and Ok­i­nawan. She called her iden­tity “am­bigu­ous” and said her feel­ing of be­ing an in­com­plete per­son has some­times led to de­pres­sion.

A gen­er­a­tion of bira­cial Ok­i­nawans know about in­ter­cul­tural re­la­tion­ships. They know about ro­mance and sep­a­ra­tions, child-sup­port bat­tles and re­unions. They know that Ja­panese chil­dren re­fer to their bira­cial peers as “halfs,” and nowa­days, they know of the lo­cal Amer­i­can Asian school, for bira­cial chil­dren, where those kids are taught to call them­selves “dou­bles.”

Ok­i­nawa’s rates of sin­gle-par­ent house­holds and divorce are twice Ja­pan’s na­tional av­er­age. At the Amer­i­can Asian school, 70 per­cent of the 80 stu­dents come from sin­gle-par­ent house­holds, Prin­ci­pal Mi­dori Thayer said.

“Un­for­tu­nately, some kids never live with their fa­ther, but they can­not lose their DNA,” she said. “Their body shows that they are not 100 per­cent Ja­panese.”

Denny Ta­maki, 50, the lo­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the Ja­panese par­lia­ment, knows only that his fa­ther, a U.S. ser­vice­man whom he has never met, was named Wil­liam.

When Wil­liam re­turned to the United States and Ta­maki’s mother de­cided not to fol­low, she burned his pho­tos and letters. When they moved to a new home, she didn’t give the Amer­i­can their new ad­dress. When Ta­maki turned 10, his mother took him to a govern­ment of­fice to of­fi­cially change his first name to Ya­suhiro.

Ta­maki wants Futenma moved off Ok­i­nawa be­cause “it feels like we’re liv­ing un­der oc­cu­pa­tion.” But he has a pas­sion for Amer­i­can mu­sic and U.S. tele­vi­sion shows.

A decade ago he tried to track down his fa­ther, with no luck. When his kids ask about their grand­fa­ther, he tells them that it would take the de­tec­tives from “CSI: Mi­ami” to find him.

Tom­lin­son’s mother and fa­ther were mar­ried on Ok­i­nawa and then moved to­gether to Ge­or­gia af­ter his tour on the is­land ended in 1975. Tom­lin­son was born in Hinesville, Ga., while her fa­ther was sta­tioned at Fort Ste­wart.

Tom­lin­son’s par­ents sep­a­rated when she was 3; she re­turned to Ok­i­nawa in 1990 with her mother. Her fa­ther re­tained cus­tody of their two older chil­dren, who stayed in the United States with him.

From her mother, Tom­lin­son had heard only nasty tales about her fa­ther, who was once sta­tioned at the Army’s Torii base. Af­ter her ju­nior year in col­lege in spring 2009, she de­cided to try to find him and left school for a time.

In March, her U.S. mil­i­tary ID card, a priv­i­lege from the re­la­tion­ship, was ex­pir­ing. The Army passed along her fa­ther’s ad­dress. She emailed him, ask­ing for him to sign the re­quired forms for a new ID.

Weeks later, she heard back from the fa­ther who hadn’t seen her since she was 3.

“Hi Melissa, Hear­ing from you, to say the least, came as quite a shock,” he wrote. “I was not aware that you could speak English let alone read or write it. The last time we had con­tact, and I am sure you do not re­mem­ber it, you could only speak Ja­panese. Try­ing to bridge the gap with words af­ter all this time would be fu­tile. In life some­times we have to make de­ci­sions that we don’t know if they are right or not, but we have to live with them.”

Tom­lin­son reread the e-mail. She dis­cussed it with friends and they parsed the words. Their re­la­tion­ship con­tin­ued, e-mail by e-mail, and she learned that he missed Ok­i­nawa and that he says he has thought about her ev­ery day.

For all these years, he wrote, he avoided con­tact be­cause he didn’t want her to be torn be­tween par­ents. “It would have made your life mis­er­able,” he wrote.

Chico Har­lan WASHIngTon PoST

Denny Ta­maki, a Ja­panese law­maker who has never met his fa­ther, a U.S. ser­vice­man, wants to move a U.S. base off Ok­i­nawa.

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