I would safely say that music is a part of most people’s lives. For Amerasians growing up in Japan, or growing up in both Japan and in another country, the places of Japanese-ness in our identities are often connected to the music and songs we cherished in youth. For me, this was definitely the case. But in general, music is a soundtrack that dots the memory-emotions of our lives and to be able to share it with those who “understand,” is a special moment.
For Black-Japanese Amerasians in the early to mid-1960s, the singer Aoyama Michi played a huge role, as well as Shuri Eiko. For all Amerasians, we may remember such singers as Yamamoto Linda. The 1960s marks the big push towards bringing Japan into globalization’s (a la United Statian) fold. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics was a marker that was used by both the United States and Japan, to introduce a new and modern Japan to the world after the devastation of it. The modernizing of Japan includes the pushing of American cultural/technological production into everyday Japanese-ness. Music played and continues to play, a key role. But when we take seriously, how the processes of modernization happen, we must remember that the social issues that people struggle with, also play out in this cultural production, in all of their beauty and ugliness.
Both Aoyama Michi and Shuri Eiko were admonished to try to make it in America because Japan was too violently prejudiced against them and their careers would not work.
In the present-day, ethnographic research points out that White-Japanese mixed-race people in Japan, are called hāfu. Black-Japanese mixed people are called Burakku (black). This burakku, separates it from the term for black people: kokujin. Because racial and national boundaries and mixtures are demarcated in this way, people can see how those falling into these categories are treated in Japanese society. They delineate the kinds of privileges and violences entitled to be given out to persons who fit into the categories. Just as they do in the United States, the “other” is marked by color/not color, and nation/not-nation. Both Aoyama Michi and Shuri Eiko were admonished to try to make it in America because Japan was too violently prejudiced against them and their careers would not work. It was only slightly better for White-Japanese such as Yamamoto Linda. From reading about their stories, and linking it to my own experiences, we are sure that these artists experienced much suffering as they tried to become a success in a Japan that did not want them.
Even for those like Aoyama Michi, Shuri Eiko, and Yamamoto Linda, who became popular, many of the photographs that were taken of them, for the covers of recordings or for magazines, were more sexually provocative than for other women.
In any case, Amerasians were funneled, as non-majority people in most countries are, into gendered and controlled areas of culture. Girls were most-often funneled into the entertainment industry and boys into sports. For girls, whom I will focus on in this essay, there was no room for every Amerasian or Southeast Asian girl to become a “star.” Many wound up, therefore, working in red-light district bars, doing menial work or pushed into prostitution. Even for those like Aoyama Michi, Shuri Eiko, and Yamamoto Linda, who became popular, many of the photographs that were taken of them, for the covers of recordings or for magazines, were more sexually provocative than for other women. Their skirts were shorter, more of their bodies exposed than other women. B-movies often portrayed young hāfu women as sexually promiscuous or depraved, and violence-prone. In this context, songs that the hāfu and burakku konketsuji sang in popular music, were sometimes the only ways that their struggles could be expressed, although in subtle ways.
The first big hit recording by Aoyama Michi, was entitled: Shikaranaide (Don’t Be Angry With Her/Me). The lyrics plead for Miss Maria to forgive this girl for the errors of her ways because she has had a hard life. This song is interesting in the context of the subcultures of Japanese society, at least for those times. I knew of two different kinds of Japanese girls and boys, who absolutely loved this song (including myself). One group were those of Christian faith. Because Christians were still somewhat persecuted and often kept their religion secret, they loved this song as one representing a pleading to Mother Mary. Many Amerasians were abandoned and left in (or were found by personnel of) Christian missionaries. Sociologically, the connection between Christian institutions—which were often the only places that abandoned Amerasians could be taken to in the postwar—and Amerasians themselves, was intimate.
Through seeing a Black-Japanese entertainer, and to hear that song, was one of the few ways that we could communicate ourselves as living in a society rather than some individual anomaly.
For Amerasians such as myself, we thought of the song as Amerasian, as the song was emotionally speaking as an Amerasian who was living with an American step-family or in a Christian orphanage, and who was letting off steam and frustration and loneliness—as was the case for most of us in those days, and would get into trouble and punished. Many Amerasians could resonate so much with this song, we would cry together while listening to the song and run to the television sets playing in store windows, whenever Aoyama Michi came on. Through seeing a Black-Japanese entertainer, and to hear that song, was one of the few ways that we could communicate ourselves as living in a society rather than some individual anomaly.
Although I, myself was not an orphan, I had enough Amerasian friends who experienced more strife and were victims of violence under the hands of their step-parents or relatives of their mothers, due to their Amerasian-ness. There was so much shame and resentment to go around, expressed in these ways, with very little room to resolve them. In the configuration of adultism, nationalism, racism, and war-defeat, and all of this in the context of Japanese nation-building in the shadow of America and the Korean War, songs such as Shikaranaide, and singers such as those I have named, played an extremely important role in society. And although the images of konketsuji women entertainers in “sexually-risque” poses and clothing were considered somewhat “disgusting” to many Japanese, these also played an important role in visibility, confirming selves in society. Although sex-negativity and its links to the U.S. Occupation (a la Christian morality) played a role, the visibility of konketsuji, along with other images and songs in Japan during those times, played an important role in empowering Amerasians in Japan. For those who would travel to another country, new kinds of battles, new kinds of songs, would enter our lives.
Featured Image by Edward M. Haugh