For New Yorker Demian Akhan, 60, his recent visit to Japan marked the end of a decades-long journey to discover his roots.
He was one of the thousands of mixed-blood babies produced by U.S. servicemen and Japanese women during the Occupation, some of whom were abandoned, rescued by orphanages and later adopted away from Japan. In his first visit to his birthplace last month, Akhan met his long-lost half brother and paid respects to the orphanage that took him in.
“I still marvel at how it all worked out. I have no anger or resentment and the events of the visit are etched deeply in my heart and mind,” he said in an interview with The Japan Times last month.
Born to a Japanese mother and an American father, Akhan was adopted by an American sergeant and his wife in 1949 when he was 6 months old and taken to the United States at the age of 3. He began looking into his ancestry when he was a teenager to “emotionally complete the picture.”
“I decided very early on that however it was going to work, it was going to work out in its own way,” Akhan said.
Part of that was his visit to Elizabeth Saunders Home in Oiso, Kanagawa Prefecture, and his first meeting with his half brother, whom he discovered 15 years ago. The trip made a profound impression on Akhan and finally gave him the chance to start the relationship with his Japanese family that he had longed for.
According to one estimate, 5,000 to 10,000 mixed-blood babies had been born by 1952, some the products of love, others of prostitution. Many of the fathers returned to the U.S., leaving their children, knowingly or otherwise, to their mothers, many of whom were financially unable to keep them.
Akhan was one of the first of more than 600 interracial babies to be admitted to the U.S. from Elizabeth Saunders Home, which was set up for mixed-blood orphans in 1948 by Miki Sawada, the granddaughter of Yataro Iwasaki, founder of the Mitsubishi conglomerate.
According to the book “Trans-Pacific Racisms and the U.S. Occupation of Japan” by Yukiko Koshiro, Sawada believed racism in Japan toward mixed-race babies, especially those born to black fathers, necessitated adoption into their paternal country.
However, when Akhan was adopted, legal restrictions meant that would only be possible by having a private bill passed in Congress.
“I remember my adoptive mother saying it took a lot of paperwork and two years to clear,” he said.
Even after he entered the U.S. as a “naturalized alien,” Akhan had to be adopted twice more by the same family because of changes in the law, he said. His new parents also adopted a 3-year-old girl from Okinawa when he was 5.
According to Koshiro’s book, immigration procedures for mixed-blood babies eased in the 1950s under growing pressure from other countries with half-American war orphans.
Akhan, now an executive assistant at a law firm in New York, was too young to have memories of the orphanage. But his adoptive parents gave him a picture of him playing on its lawn as a baby. When he found the same exact spot in the playground during his visit, he described it as a “eureka moment.”
“When I stepped off the train and smelled the ocean breezes, I realized that I was home again. I have a love of the ocean and a sharp sense of smell for water — maybe I developed those in Oiso!”
Although the orphanage declined The Japan Times’ request to accompany Akhan on his tour to protect the hundred or so children currently there from press exposure, Akhan said the superintendent talked with him for four hours, mediated by his close Japanese friend, Hiroco Oucci. The superintendent also let him meet some of the children.
“I walked around holding hands with two of the children, who were so happy, energetic and full of life,” he said.
Throughout his life, Akhan has been wary of looking into his past, something he said could be a double-edged sword.
“My adoptive mother told me my natural mother had tried to drown me, and the military police had discovered her and taken me to the orphanage. Such a story would have done a lot of damage to any child, it’s a wonder that I have any sense at all,” he said with a laugh.
When he was in his 20s, he wrote to Sawada to ask for information about his natural mother but was refused.
“She wrote back saying that it was discouraged for the sake of the mother, because if she had established her life again, it may cause her harm,” he said.
Akhan said he understood Sawada’s concerns for protecting the mother, because he himself had adopted his niece for a few years when his sister was having emotional difficulties, and saw the complexity of the relationship between mother and child.
“It took everything I could to get my sister motivated and explain that we were a team,” he said. Akhan himself remains single.
The first fruitful step toward discovering his ancestry came with the arrival of a Japanese employee to his office in New York in the mid-’90s.
When he was in his 30s, Akhan had discovered he still had only Japanese citizenship even though he had been in the U.S. for decades, and applied for American citizenship. When the Japanese colleague arrived 10 years later, he asked her to translate some of the documents he had received from the Japanese Consulate during the process. The results were groundbreaking.
“She translated my family birth records on my mother’s side; names, addresses . . . I was flabbergasted,” he said.
With this information, Akhan managed to locate his half brother, who is two years his junior. But by the time he contacted him, their mother had just died.
“I sent him a letter but didn’t hear from him for about six months. When he replied, he said our mother had died a few months previously. I don’t know if she was alive when he got the letter — and he certainly didn’t know about me!”
Although they exchanged letters, Akhan was uncertain of his half brother’s reactions because his replies were always formal. It took 15 years and two canceled trips until Akhan’s milestone age pressured him to make the leap.
“My brother turned out to be just a sweetheart. It was really good to see my mother had married and had a family. He said he would take me to the airport (at the end of his trip) so we can all cry,” he laughed.
However, he added that there were still things he wanted to know about his mother that he was afraid to ask his half brother because he was afraid of offending him.
Meeting the relative made Akhan develop an emotional view of his mother, something he had hitherto refrained from doing.
“It couldn’t have been easy for her to see one little boy running around knowing that she had another, and to never say anything about it. For the first time I was aware of how it might have affected her. I’d kept a distance from all this emotionally, almost keeping it on an intellectual level,” he said.
If his mother were still alive, there are two questions Akhan would have wanted to ask. One is how she and his father met.
“I know what the traditional story was: that the American soldiers promised Japanese women they would take them back to the U.S. for a better life, and that many women fell for the line. That’s the impression I got about my mother, from what I gathered about her background, rather than her working in a massage parlor,” he said.
“She was the only link to my natural father. You can identify anyone through the service records and I had always hoped to get that name, and her death totally erased that,” he added.
The other explanation he would have wanted concerns his unusual birth name. His current name is his third, which he took when he left home and became an actor. He also had an adopted name and a birth name, which was Demeterius Shimizu.
“I initially thought maybe Demeterius was my father’s name, but black men are just not called that,” he said. He currently uses the S from Shimizu as his middle initial.
The discovery of his blood relatives provided solace after a lifelong sense of isolation, a feeling partly caused by changing schools 12 times as he followed his serviceman father.
“I’m not accepted in American culture, I’m not accepted by blacks at all, and I’m not accepted by whites as being a black person. When I’m talking to some people, it’s so boring I want to shoot myself! I’ve had such a different life, I’ve always been very isolated,” he said, adding briefly that his relationship with his adoptive parents was difficult.
Nearing retirement, Akhan remains open about where to settle, and is keen to continue his relationship with his Japanese family and the orphanage.