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In Japan but surrounded by U.S. influence, Okinawa struggles with split identity

Japanese lawmaker Denny Tamaki.
Japanese lawmaker Denny Tamaki. (Chico Harlan/Post)

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By Chico Harlan
Thursday, July 1, 2010

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

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She grew up here 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 what have been the world's two largest economies as they cope with a rising China and a belligerent North Korea.

For the more than 60 years since the end of World War II, native 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 here.

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.

A vocal majority of Okinawans still demand closing the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station. American officials, citing proximity to North Korea, China and Southeast Asia, insist it remain in Okinawa. Japan, in its attempt to mediate, has only frustrated both sides.

The current resolution, 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 week for the "heavy burden" facing Okinawans.

Many locals on this Pacific island hosting more than half of 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 deep depression.

A generation of biracial Okinawans know about intercultural relationships, writ small. 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 demographics separate it from mainland Japan. Here, the rates of single-parent households and divorce are twice the national average. At the American-Asian school, 70 percent of the 80 students come from single-parent households, Principal Midori Thayer said.


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