When I talk about my early life, from birth in Ōme and then our family moving to Tachikawa City, and then onto Tachikawa Air Base, and then Albuquerque, I talk about my family and our journey to these places. In my book Dream of the Water Children, I mention how we lived in certain places twice, at different times in my youth. Changes in the places and peoples’ attitudes, and experience comes with age. but we must also realize that not only is a person changing, but spaces/places do as well. What issues play out the same or differently, or disappear when time and place move? For this first place-and-self reflection, I start with Tachikawa, with some mention of Ōme.
"There are various kinds of experiences for mixed-folks—between relative smooth and happy experiences to some of the most excruciating."
Usually, the closer a place and experiences are to war-time, the more intense the residues and sudden new realities are as they collide, making each of our experiences jarring and intense. Within this, there are various kinds of experiences for mixed-folks—between relative smooth and happy experiences to some of the most excruciating, or even leading to death. My experiences were more on the smooth side, but with some jarring experiences and identity markers. My birthplace: Ōme was a place of mainly dirt roads and steep lush-green mountains, birds and animals of all kinds, and joyful shopkeepers. However, in our neighborhood, most of the families would not allow their children to play with me or relate with my mother. Coupled with this was, come to find out, my mother was ashamed of showing her face too much but at the same time, she wanted to defy the dominant culture of those times.
I struggled, at first, in the American military schools, from kindergarten to second grade, as I knew hardly any English nor was I used to using my own American name. As my English improved little by little, I began to make a couple of friends and understand teachers more. On the base, most of the kids from the neighborhood were friendly with each other. Of course I learned later that there were the same problems at home with friends, as their parents didn’t want their children “playing with niggers.”
Our family moved to Albuquerque in 1962. When we returned to live in Tachikawa on the military base again in 1968, life seemed to continue from the first time we lived there. But this time, I was more acutely aware of parents and their prejudices when suddenly a close friend would stop visiting me and if I visited them, they would only open the door only a few inches and would tell me I couldn’t come over. But I had other friends and my desperation for friendship became less intense.
There were no more riots or anyone approaching Mama and I with their prejudices. Everyone was relatively friendly, save a few individuals here and there. We would, however encounter more racist ideas on television or read about them in magazines and newspapers (murders, assaults, mistreatment at orphanages, etc.). Mama and I would still go outside the base gates into “the city” to go shopping and visit our “original culture.” With most of my neighbors and friends at school, there was no mention of race or culture and the sense of assimilating into our surroundings was easier.
My friends were those kids of my mother’s friends, who most often came from far away, by train, and would stay for a day or two. Early in my memory, my mother would not me go outside without her being there. Later, as time went on I would often play alone and I also had neighbor friends but we would have to play together far from the eye-sight of their parents. More than once, I experienced angry parents arguing with my mother and pulling their children away from us once they found out that I was playing with their children. Sometimes rock-throwing boys yelling “ainoko” (love-child) or “kurombo” (Blackie, black sambo, nigger) would jump out, and I would run for my life. Once I was also lured away as well, and beaten unconscious. But when Mama and I would go shopping and eating in downtown Ōme, we both felt safer. There were some hateful incidents in stores where certain women or men would say something to me in horrible tones but my mother would always step in and threaten to beat them up.
Once I remember a small riot broke out when Mama and I went shopping. Mama and I were protected from the violence by a young white American soldier when some Japanese men decided to violently challenge some American soldiers riding in a few jeeps on the road alongside the sewage canals that ran through the town. At the time, I don’t remember if or when Mama told me what this was about but I remember being afraid but understood the problem of Americans in Japan.
When I was about six years old, our family moved to Tachikawa City for a short while, then onto Tachikawa Air Force Base for about two years. Tachikawa City was a place Mama and I would go shopping and would be the “big city” that we went to for enjoyment. We would be more anonymous in the big city and we felt more relaxed than we were in Ōme and even more so when we moved onto the military base. On the base, the crowded housing, dirt roads, and trips to the river to wash our clothes, disappeared. We suddenly lived in a house with a washer and dryer, a toilet seat (where before it was the traditional benjo which was a hole in the ground with a protruding handle). No more sliding shoji doors and tatami. Days without seeing anyone in the street in our residential district. No more smells, neon lights, and enka music wafting through the air. No more bicycle ramen salesmen or old grandmas handing out fresh fruit on their daily walk through the neighborhood. It was suddenly quiet. Everyone spoke English. The only Japanese language spoken or heard was with my mother.