The Australian servicemen who left behind mixed-race children during the postwar Occupation of Japan set in motion changes that are chipping away at a nation’s stubborn myth of racial homogeneity.
A few days ago I received a parcel in the mail from Japan containing a figurine of a rooster, this year’s animal sign in the Oriental zodiac. I have been receiving these parcels ever since I began writing my book Children of the Occupation: Japan’s Untold Story.
The original sender was George Tsutsumi, one of the ‘children’ featured in the book. Since his death three years ago, his wife Hatsue has continued the practice. She included in this year’s parcel several wedding photographs of their eldest son Kōji, who had travelled with his attractive Japanese bride to France for the ceremony––a touch of internationalism I’m sure his late father would have appreciated.
Children of the Occupation tells the story of the mixed-race children left behind in Japan by Allied servicemen after the war, especially those fathered by Australian troops based in Kure, near Hiroshima, between 1946 and 1956 (I call them the Kure Kids).
In George Tsutsumi’s case, it mattered not one iota to those in power at the time that his parents had exchanged marriage vows; after his father died in the Korean War, the ‘White Australia’ policy and Japanese prejudice condemned him to a childhood of poverty and social alienation.
The annual parcels are Tsutsumi-san’s way of saying ‘thank you’ for rescuing his story from the embarrassed silence of history.
My wife and I are fortunate to have made many friends among the Kure Kids we tracked down in Japan, Australia and elsewhere; when the telephone rings, we know it can be São Paulo or Kure or Canberra calling. Their own faithfulness, I believe, is a way of repudiating the faithlessness that blighted their early lives.
In Children of the Occupation I expressed the hope that the Japanese would come to embrace a more tolerant view of ethnic diversity within their midst. There are some positive signs, albeit too few.
In 2015, for the first time, a ‘half black’ woman was selected to represent Japan in the Miss Universe pageant: Ariana Miyamoto was born of a Japanese mother and an African-American father in Sasebo. Although her selection offended some chauvinists, it was mostly applauded; speaking and thinking ‘like one of us’, and not just her physical appearance, was allowed to define her identity.
Behind Miyamoto’s success, however, lay the tragic shadow of a recalcitrant Japan. She revealed that she was motivated to enter the beauty contest by the suicide of a friend, another hafu (from the English ‘half’, meaning a mixed-race Japanese), who was fed up with being mocked for not being able to speak English despite his non-Japanese features. ‘He said there was nowhere he felt at home,’ Miyamoto told the New York Times.
She thought that if she could win, she could prove not all Japanese needed to look the same.
Miyamoto’s own childhood experiences of discrimination mirror, to some extent, those of the Kure Kids. Among them, too, those who undertook careers as models, singers or actors were more likely to find acceptance. The ‘cute’ hafu of the entertainment world remains a peculiarly Japanese phenomenon.
Change will not come quicker so long as the Japanese government maintains policies aimed at shoring up ethnic homogeneity: tight immigration controls and a closed door to all but a tiny number of refugees. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other traditionalists fear any large-scale entry of foreign workers would destroy Japan’s ‘uniqueness’.
What they cannot prevent is Japanese marrying foreigners and having children. This cohort is the main source of a growing diversity. Nearly 20,000 children born in 2014 (the latest year for which statistics are available) had one non-Japanese parent, or about 2% of total births. The ratio was higher in Tokyo and other big cities. (The number with one or both non-Japanese parents was estimated at 35,000, or 3.4% of all births.)
For the first time since records have been kept, Japan recorded fewer than one million births in 2016. The Abe Government’s nationalistic appeals to boost the flagging fertility rate––while offering more childcare facilities and tax incentives––have failed to reverse the trend.
As the population ages, the racial fortress is withering from within.
To George and Hatsue Tsutsumi’s own three children (almost twice the current reproductive average), four grandchildren have been added so far. The recent marriage of their first son promises to expand the tribe. Wherever they may be looking on from in the next life, George and his Australian father, Private Joe Ritchie, can feel proud: overcoming war, animosity and racial prejudice, they have shown the way forward for Ariana Miyamoto and all the new hafus striving to change the face, and especially the mindset, of a nation.
Walter Hamilton’s ‘Children of the Occupation: Japan’s Untold Story’ is available from online booksellers or directly from NewSouth Press.