URUMA, Okinawa Pref. — For 21-year-old Elza Sasaki, Japan’s representative for the Miss World contest in December, winning the beauty pageant is not just about opening doors to achieve her childhood dream of becoming a super model, but also about generating media exposure to help her find her long-lost American grandfather.
Discovering the whereabouts of the former U.S. Air Force officer, who was stationed in Okinawa shortly after the end of the war and would be around 80 if still alive, is a desire that Elza — who beat some 3,000 contestants last October to represent Japan at the pageant in Johannesburg — inherited from her mother Tammy Sasaki, 57.
Her mother, who was named after her father’s nickname “Tommie,” also dreamed of reuniting with her father, who left Japan before she was born, by becoming famous to draw attention to herself. Her efforts were rewarded when she was selected to become a member of the Japanese women’s basketball team for the 1972 Munich Olympics. Her hopes were dashed, however, when the International Olympic Committee decided not to introduce women’s basketball at the Games.
But for 76-year-old Chiyoko Inafuku, Elza’s grandmother, the man she met nearly 60 years ago while working as a waitress at Kadena Air Base has long been “history,” she said in a recent interview at her home in Uruma, Okinawa Prefecture.
The man, whose name is believed to be Tom Snell, disappeared suddenly in 1951 when Inafuku was pregnant with Tammy. Until his disappearance, Snell had been a caring boyfriend throughout the roughly one year they spent together, bringing boxes of clothes, tableware and other gifts to her home after her pregnancy forced her to quit her job at the base.
“It was a great shock to me,” said Inafuku, speaking about him in detail for the first time since he disappeared. The strain of thinking about it kept her awake the night before the interview, she said.
Elza Sasaki, a junior at Japan Women’s College of Physical Education in Tokyo, and Tammy Sasaki, an aerobics instructor in Tottori Prefecture, were with Inafuku during the interview because were both anxious to learn about the man they had only seen in a photograph. Inafuku’s photo shows a smiling Snell in his U.S. Air Force uniform, which indicated his rank was technical sergeant, or “tech sergeant,” as she recalls.
The two met when Inafuku was 18 and Snell 22. She remembers he was born in the year of the Dragon in the Chinese zodiac, which made him four years older because she was born in the year of the Monkey. If her memory is correct, it means Snell was born in 1928.
Among other things she remembers about him are that he was Jewish and his hometown was in Ohio. With brown eyes and brown hair, Snell was a little skinny but “a handsome man who looked like Jiro Tamiya,” Inafuku said with a smile, referring to the late Japanese actor.
After he disappeared, the pregnant Inafuku, who could only speak broken English, did all she could to find him. She wrote a letter, had it translated into English and asked one of his colleagues to send it to him, but heard nothing from Snell himself. She repeated the process, but in vain.
After the second attempt and the passing of the years, she said her feelings for him slowly faded.
“I had to raise a child and had simply no time for that (searching for him),” she said. She also wondered whether he had gone on to fight in the 1950-1953 Korean War and was killed.
Inafuku began working at the U.S. Air Force base when she was 17 to earn money so her three younger brothers could go to school after her mother was widowed in 1945 during the Battle of Okinawa. Since the minimum age for working at the base was 18, she lied and put on makeup to make herself look older.
Inafuku resumed work at the base when Tammy was 10 months old and continued to work, mainly as a cashier, for U.S. military personnel until she reached the mandatory retirement age of 60.
“All my life I just worked and worked like a worker bee,” she said.
Her daughter and granddaughter appeared glad when Inafuku began recalling memories of some of the good times she had with Snell.
She said the two started dating after Snell asked what her foot size was and gave her a pair of leather shoes, a valuable item at the time.
“So he bought your love with presents!” laughed Tammy Sasaki.
As a child, Tammy Sasaki was often bullied and ridiculed because of her Caucasian appearance. She was called “konketsu” (mixed breed) and had sand thrown over her head as she was walking down the street.
“My mother always told me, ‘Don’t stand out,’ and I hated that because I didn’t know how not to with my appearance,” she said.
But Tammy Sasaki said she used the discrimination to make her stronger.
“When I was young, I wanted to become a world famous person so I could find my father and tell him, ‘You are selfish and irresponsible,’ ” said Tammy, who was recruited by Unitika Ltd. to join the Osaka-based synthetic fiber maker’s women’s basketball team when she was a second-year high school student.
After finishing high school, she left for Osaka with her passport — Okinawa was still under U.S. occupation at the time — and took an airplane for the first time in her life.
But Tammy Sasaki quit basketball after the IOC decision in 1972. Women’s basketball would become an Olympic sport four years later at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. “It really brought me down. I thought I could not do it another four years,” she said.
For Elza Sasaki, being a quarter Caucasian is one of her strengths and standing out is a good thing. At 174 cm tall, her long limbs have prompted some to call her “spider woman,” she giggled.
Like her mother, she excels at sports and became the national high jump champion at 15. “I believe I got this talent for sports from Tom-san,” said Elza, who was named after the orphaned lion cub in the award-winning 1966 film “Born Free” because her mother wanted her daughter to be strong.
“Hearing the story (of her grandmother) makes me want to see him even more,” said Elza, who wants to “thank him for the good things” she inherited from him.
Tammy Sasaki has more complex feelings about him, but said if her daughter’s competing in Miss World can somehow bring about a meeting with her father, she would tell him, “You abandoned us, but we are all so happy.”