Children of the Occupation: Japan’s Untold Story by Walter Hamilton (review)
The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth
Volume 7, Number 3, Fall 2014
Hamilton, Walter, Children of the Occupation: Japan’s Untold Story (Sydney: NewSouth Books, 2012)
What if you felt like you didn’t belong to the society in which you were born and raised? This is the question Walter Hamilton explores in his powerful book about mixed-race children born during the occupation of Japan. Drawing on his long experience living in Japan as a correspondent for the Australian Broadcast Company (ABC), Hamilton weaves personal testimonials into a broader tale about race discrimination in the modern era. He focuses on cases drawn from Kure in southwestern Honshu (the “Kure kids”), which was the center of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) that included a large contingent of Australian troops. This is not just an Australian story, however. Hamilton reminds us that people from many different societies and cultures recoiled in “horror and pity” at the consequences of race mixing, including the Japanese, whose “racial intolerance was fully matched in the nations it fought against” (3).
This story is a tragedy on multiple levels, punctuated by poignant moments of survival, perseverance, and, occasionally, triumph. Japan’s defeat and subsequent seven-year occupation brought the impoverished Japanese, especially women, face to face with thousands of foreign troops, all bigger, healthier, and richer than most Japanese could have dreamed of at the time. The interactions that followed took many forms from rape and prostitution to workplace relationships and chance romance. The offspring of these encounters were the konketsuji (mixed-race children) or ainoko (half-caste or hybrid), boys and girls struggling to survive at the margins of a society already fractured by war, defeat, and occupation. These children were rejected by their communities and often their own families because they looked different, because they were impure. They also suffered the “sins” of their mothers, whom society often ostracized as prostitutes regardless of the true nature of their relationships with foreigners. Abandonment by both mothers and fathers was not uncommon, with reluctant relatives often stepping into the breach to care for them.
Karumi and Joji, the first two Kure kids we meet, exemplified this marginalization. Never knowing their fathers and abandoned by their mothers, the cousins were raised in poverty first by their aged great-grandmother and then separated when Joji was sent to Hawaii for adoption. After a time with her uncle and abusive aunt, Karumi was reunited with her great-grandmother, under whose care she thrived. At school she was a constant target for abuse. An Australian couple adopted her when she was eleven, but she never spoke of her adoption experience. Karumi nonetheless made a career for herself in nursing, married, and raised three children. Tragedy was close by, however. Her husband’s death in an accident left her a widow in her early forties with three kids to feed. She did remarry and continued to develop her career skills. Her comments, when looking back on her first husband’s death, exemplify the hardships of the mixed-race kid. “Remember what you went through as a child,” she said to herself. “Just try to think: ‘This [her husband’s death] ain’t nothing’” (246).
The mixed-race stigma forced on the Kure kids and their counterparts in Japan and elsewhere is a tragic legacy of our obsession with blood purity and skin color. It seems that everyone who came into contact with the so-called scientific racism of nineteenth-century Europe either adopted the concept wholesale or found at least some of it amenable to their own indigenous ideas. A long war filled with race hate intensified these prejudices, which then carried over into occupation policies like non-fraternization and bans on mixed-race marriage. The attitudes of the governments involved in the occupation, Japan’s included, more than matched those of the occupation authorities. They alternated between non-recognition of the children’s existence to prohibitions against immigration and adoption. Australia was particularly harsh in this regard, banning interracial marriage and immigration until after the peace treaty with Japan was signed in 1951, and then only under limited conditions. Some soldiers left Japan unaware they had fathered children. Others abandoned mother and child to their fate. Still others, however, sought to marry and bring their new families back to their homes but were thwarted by…