School aims to give biracial kids a place to ‘be themselves’

by Michael Bradley

Special To The Japan Times

Melissa Tomlinson doesn’t have very happy memories of elementary school. As an 8-year-old, she “never had a chance to eat lunch normally — the other kids put something in it, or they mixed the milk and soup and orange together and told me to eat it.”

Like the three or four other mixed-race children in her class, Tomlinson was bullied on a daily basis. Now a 26-year-old high school English teacher, she still recalls how “they told me to go home to America, and they talked bad about my mom.”

Her teachers did little to stop the abuse — indeed, some, wittingly or not, even contributed to it. Every summer, on the anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa — the three-month assault in which around 100,000 Okinawan civilians perished — Tomlinson would become the focus of the class. “The teacher always said, ‘Melissa, can you stand up? So, you are half-American, what do you think about this?’ For me, I was like, ‘I grew up here, I don’t know about American things.’ ” Tomlinson had no memory of her father, a U.S. serviceman who’d split from her mother when she was still a baby.

Tomlinson’s story is far from unique. Since 1946, many children here have been born to U.S. military fathers and Okinawan mothers. Sometimes (and especially when the fathers are deployed elsewhere) the mothers are left to bring up the children by themselves, and, like Tomlinson, those children don’t always have an easy time at school.

When five single mothers set up a school for their own “Amerasian” children in Okinawa 15 years ago, they were not so much worried about bullying as concerned about getting their kids a bilingual education. The only one of the women still involved with the school — the current principal, Midori Thayer — explains: “Our children needed to learn both languages because of their two different heritages. They had to be themselves.”

Because the children couldn’t get such an education at public schools, weren’t eligible to attend schools on the U.S. bases, and simply couldn’t afford the existing private international schools, the women felt they had no option but to go it alone. The local board of education was persuaded to sanction the project, which at first involved just one American teacher and 13 pupils meeting in a regular house.

Today, the AmerAsian School in Okinawa (AASO) has 78 students, 12 full-time teachers, eight part-timers and a host of volunteer tutors. They have a modern, bright facility in Ginowan, which they get to use rent-free, thanks in large part to Thayer’s powers of persuasion. (She managed to secure a promise of support from then-Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi when the pair met in Okinawa in 2000.)

It is not a school, Thayer says, for the “trendy” Japanese middle class who want their kids educated bilingually. “There are trendy schools out there. This school is for not-wealthy parents.” In any case, monoracial Japanese children are prohibited from attending by the board of education — unless they can’t speak Japanese. While the majority of AASO pupils are Amerasian, there are others of Filipino or European extraction.

Thayer, whose background is in pharmacology rather than education, runs the school with Executive Director Naomi Noiri, a sociology professor from the University of the Ryukyus. Noiri has been closely involved with the AASO from its inception and receives no payment for her work there.

A fervent believer in the school’s mission, Noiri recalls how one “double” (as she calls mixed-race children, in preference to the more commonly used “half”), an Okinawan/African-American child, arrived at the school with very low self-esteem. “He’d asked his mother, ‘Which soap is good to wash off my color?’ But once he was here, he started to help his classmates in Japanese class, and in English class the classmates helped him. He began to think, ‘I’m OK, I’m popular, I’m happy with myself.’ And that’s our goal.”

A quick look at the school’s Facebook page shows more warm words from former students who were able to escape bullying by attending AASO.

The AASO story, however, is not an unqualified success. There have been ongoing funding difficulties and rumblings of discontent from former insiders.

In some ways the school does not even exist. Its students are registered with local schools, from where they are then seconded. Also, the school receives virtually no public funding, aside from its arrangement with the rent. Two of its Japanese teachers do receive their salary from Okinawa Prefecture, but all the other running costs come out of student fees — ¥30,000 a month — or donations. And because it doesn’t receive any state money, the state has no say over how the school is run, leading some to query its accountability mechanisms.

In writing this article, I interviewed three people who had taught at the AASO at different times over the past six years, as well as the parent of a current student. All agreed that there are excellent teachers at the school and that many pupils thrive there. However, they also shared some very similar misgivings.

One issue was the relatively high turnover of staff, something which the school acknowledges. “It’s out of our control,” says Noiri. “Many of our American teachers are the wives of military personnel and they need to move on, and it’s very difficult to find a teacher who can stay with us more than three years.” Often, it seems, they stay shorter — one teacher recalled that in his two-year stint, he saw around 10 teachers come and go.

At just ¥170,000 a month, perhaps the wages are part of the reason. Noiri disagrees, arguing that the pay is comparable to that at both commercial language schools and international schools. She also rebutted a suggestion that not all the teachers were fully qualified. “I think only one teacher is in the process of getting a degree, but the majority of teachers have a teaching license.”

Another concern was the wide spectrum of ability within classes. It wasn’t just that the level of English (and Japanese) varied greatly from one student to another, but that some pupils also had learning difficulties. Again, Noiri agreed this was an issue. “At the moment we have several learning-difficulty students and we have been dealing with that.” While they could not afford classroom assistants for these children, Noiri went on to explain that a counsellor was available to advise staff. “Most of our teachers can deal with that situation. And our teachers could ask how to do (that), to the counsellor and to the principal.”

I also heard grumblings about how the staff were sometimes managed. “There’s always been a lot of politics and turmoil there. From what I saw, there wasn’t much room for constructive criticism or other ideas,” said Akemi Johnson, a former teacher and researcher at AASO. When I put the criticism to Thayer, she responded: “We are a nonprofit organization. We are not getting any government support. We run ourselves. Of course we have to protect our children — of course we have to protect ourselves.”

There was no mistaking the embattled tone. No doubt it is a measure of how deeply Thayer and Noiri care about their pupils — and the fact they have so little official support — that they sometimes come across as defensive. It probably also explains why, when I started to ask about the departure of a handful of former teachers (whom I didn’t interview), they cut short our interview. [Ms. Noiri maintains that the tone of the interview was antagonistic.]

Of course, professional disputes and personality clashes happen in every workplace. On those occasions when grievances can’t be resolved, teachers in other schools can appeal to governors, boards of education or even the ministry of education. So what’s the situation at the AASO? Noiri said teachers were, of course, free to air any grievances at faculty meetings: “If a teacher has a problem with Ms. Thayer they can come to me, same as a normal school — a principal and a board, Ms. Thayer and me.”

Reservations aside, most of the people I spoke to felt that Amerasian children benefitted from attending the school. One was particularly positive: “The overall objective is really good — their hearts are in the right place, but there are just some little kinks.”

One way to deal with those kinks might be for the government to step in and take over the running of the AASO, says professor Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu, of Stanford University. Himself an Amerasian, he has written and researched extensively in this field for more than 20 years. “The Japanese government is too willing to segregate minority groups and allow them to have their own education, but I think they need to learn how to integrate children who are different.”

He says the school has undoubtedly been good for two kinds of Amerasian children — those who were bullied in state schools and those English speakers who returned from America, usually following marriage breakdowns. But he wonders if the school is appropriate for the majority of Amerasians who don’t fall into these categories.

“I think the school really does serve well those kids who need their education in English, but for kids who want their future to be in Japan, then the school needs to have a strong Japanese language curriculum,” he says. At present, 80 percent of the curriculum in the elementary portion of the school is taught in English, while the junior high school lessons are divided equally between English and Japanese. There is no high school, so most students transfer to public high schools at the age of 16.

One AASO graduate — Eduard Thayer, now 24 — wonders if he wouldn’t have been better off going to a regular Japanese school from the start. “I sometimes question if I would have had better opportunities if I spoke the language better, but (on reflection) I would rather speak both languages because it has brought me to a global or international world — it makes you more open to other things.”

One of Principal Thayer’s three children, Eduard admits he did have linguistic difficulties when he entered high school. “Even now I’m not really good at expressing myself in Japanese — I do speak fluent Japanese but I sometimes have difficulty expressing myself.”

There is little doubt that, proportionally, there are more biracial children in Okinawa than elsewhere in Japan, thanks largely to the presence of some 25,000 U.S. military personnel. Current statistics are hard to come by, but in 2007, 63 percent of all biracial children born in Okinawa had American fathers. The corresponding figure for mainland Japan was just 7 percent.

So what about Tomlinson, whom we met at the beginning of this article — in hindsight, would she have been better off going to the AASO? “No,” she says emphatically. “I know I had bullying and it was really hard, but I survived and now I’m really happy”.

For Eduard Thayer, though, the AASO was a valuable experience, as was his time at a Japanese high school. Both helped him become comfortable with his own identity, he says. “When I was in my senior year, I finally understood that it didn’t really matter if I was Asian or American — it just matters that I act myself.”

Send comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • Mark Makino

    Reading on biracial issues, it always seems like people paint themselves into a corner with terminology. If you accept the ideas that races can be pure (“mono”) or not, and that personal identity must include some reference to race, it’s easy to see why a school like this should exist. If you don’t accept those premises though then the concept of biracial schools could just be adding to the problem by implying that race must be a formative part of one’s personality and identity, different races must speak different languages, and exclusion of biracials by their “pure” classmates is somehow inevitable.

  • expat88

    This is a fine endeavor, but it is the entirely, 100% wrong response to the problem. “What? You mean biracial children are being mercilessly bullied in schools? Gee, we’d better separate and segregate them from the regular student population! They ARE so different after all!”

    Um…no. While the people running this school have their hearts in the right place, the mere fact that it exists speaks of a deeply ingrained problem in Japanese society – not just education.

    The correct response from the board of education would have been, “What? Biracial children are being bullied? We must punish the children doing the bullying, teach the children that racial prejudice is intolerable, and better educate our children (and ourselves) on what race is and is not!”

    While I’m sure it helps these kids to have an extra class, or an extra juku, or just a whole day-long weekend school for language immersion and cultural activities – the school could have even done something – one tiny thing – put even the tiniest effort into teaching their children not to be racist little sacks of garbage.

    Expel the racist brats – give the racist parents a browbeating – publicly shame racist behavior. DON’T segregate children. As it is, the people running this school are doing the best they can, but the people running the school district are no better than the racist sacks of garbages who raised little sacks-of-garbage racist children. The school board, in other words, is full of sacks-of-garbage racists.

    Good effort in helping these children, but this is a step back half a century in time away from civilized behavior. The school board, if they had even the slightest thread of human decency in them, should have been deeply, deeply shamed by the mere suggestion that this school be built, because it is a monument to their massive, monumental failure to be decent human beings.

    This article could have been more honest about this. The school is not a monument to international or inter-racial understanding. What a sad life these kids lead – they can only find self worth and self realization if they are segregated racially from their vicious, merciless, barbaric peers? There are no other options in Japanese society than racial segregation? The school board feels no shame for their utter, massive failure to be decent human beings, and put out no effort to fix this failure? Is life in Japan really this hopeless for us?

    • phu

      Idealistically, you’re right. But you’re also fundamentally wrong. The real world does not work that way, and Japan perhaps least of all.

      We do what we can with what we have. No reasonable parent would wait the decades or generations it will take — if it ever happens — for Japan to mold itself to your ideal. Frankly, it’s ridiculous to assume that will happen at all.

      It’s sad to see racial segregation used as a temporary solution. It’s more sad to see people railing against a temporary solution based on idealistic demands that are unlikely to be met in our lifetime, if ever.

      • disqus_Gvs3G32z1K

        If nobody complains about it, then it’s never going to change.

  • Susie

    It seems unfair to criticise the school for not having teachers stay past three years. To be honest the rest of Japan has an education system where teachers are routinely (and arbitrarily) moved around every few years at the whim of the BOE. I’ve known of JHS schools where the classes have had a different English teacher every single year.

  • Christopher-trier

    Americans have little room to point fingers without 4 pointing back at them. That doesn’t mean that the criticism is invalid. It’s much like Jeffrey Dahmer saying that murder is wrong.

    • Ron NJ

      Is it not a bit silly to hold (unelected) individuals accountable for the actions of nations, though? Should we hold all of Chile accountable for Pinochet, all of France for the Roma expulsions, all of Japan for Fukushima? And, as you hinted at, the appeal to hypocrisy is a logical fallacy for a reason – Dahmer saying murder is wrong doesn’t mean it is or isn’t so, it’s just his opinion, and he’s certainly entitled to it; I’d imagine he probably has a better perspective on it than most of us given his proximity to the issue..

    • disqus_Gvs3G32z1K

      I like how you managed to point out that the criticism is still valid. Did you just want an excuse to bash Americans?

  • phu

    Segregation from an education system uninterested and unwilling to accommodate reasonable -international- requirements. Using English as a language of instruction for students who want and need to learn English in a nation that fails spectacularly at attempts to teach it. Acknowledging non-Japanese heritage in students that already live in Japan but have more than one culture in their heritage.

    See? It’s easy to spin things your way. If you want to be negative about people who can’t get along in Japanese schools because Japanese kids aren’t taught to tolerate them and Japanese schools don’t care if they succeed or not, it’s very, very easy.

    It’s much harder to actually serve the needs of kids who aren’t typical Japanese. The board of education actually recognized this, which is phenomenal in Japan. That you can’t is your own failure.

  • gokyo

    This school was created 15 years ago based on the situation that existed then. Times have changed and bullying has come to the forefront of attention in the Japanese school system. My child is “hafu” and these problems don’t exist for her. The Japanese people have changed since then and the question is whether this school needs to continue to exist, especially when the education the child receives may not be preparing them for high school adequately.

    • Franz Pichler

      the fact this school may not be preparing students for high school adequately is surely an issue that needs to be solved. If by that you mean the school should be closed I strongly disagree. The school can change and needs to endorse a tougher curriculum to prepare students better. If the Japanese people have changed in 18 years I’m not so sure about. I don’t think so. I’ve now been here for 17 and a half years and can’t say that much has changed in this respect. The number of racists and biggots is more or less the same – at least that’s how I experience it. What has changed is that people are reacting to these issues quicker and stronger than in the past but this is also thanks to the efforts of many human right activists that are often ridiculed in the press/blogs. And, by the way, yes, I’m not Japanese and my wife is so our daughter looks a bit different with all the good and bad things that comes with it. The Japanese education system, that begins at preschool is very though on people and attitudes/thinking that is deemed different. They expect you to fit in and it can get uncomfortable at times. I could tell a couple of stories that happened to my daughter in kindergarten but tat wouldn’t help. What helped and changed things at our kindergarten was that I never tolerate discrimination and put pressure on staff. Maybe I’m getting on their nerves but so be it!

  • Franz Pichler

    This is a very disturbing piece. According to her it happened just 18 years ago, I came to Japan 16 years ago, I must say, it’s not the fact that children bully that shocks me, kids can be very very cruel, it’s the fact that none of the teachers intervened. Also, I imagine her mother must have been very busy but I would have become a tornado if this would have happened to my child. My daughter is now 5, goes to a Japanese kindergarten, we’ve the usual “problems” and I react accordingly. I realized that in Japan you need to act very swiftly to avoid escalation. As a father I also talked to the other kids in Kindergarten. I don’t know how it’s gonna be once she’s in elementary school so I can’t talk about this. It’s surely a good think to create that special school and at the same time all effort must be made that such terrible things that happened to Melissa aren’t left unpunished. Okinawa has a special history, America must deal with this as well. They should come together on anniversary day and bring their dark past to light and try to mend old wounds. Although I can understand the special history of Okinawa and the many wrongdoings up to this day by US servicemen on the island it is totally unacceptable to let bullies destroy a child’s life!