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.”

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