When the 23-year Allied Occupation of the Ogasawara Islands ended 50 years ago, it was also a moment of closure for George Yokota, who had worked for 12 years as a teacher on Chichijima — one of the two main inhabited islands in the chain 1,000 km south of Tokyo.
The second-generation Japanese-American born in Hawaii was 24 years old in 1956 when, following his discharge from the U.S. Army, he was immediately hired by the U.S. authorities to teach Japanese elementary and junior high school students at Admiral Radford Elementary School — then the only school in the chain.
All of the subjects were taught in English, which was the official language of the Occupation era.
A few years later, he became the school’s principal, dedicating much of his time to guiding students conflicted by identity issues. When the islands were returned to Japan in 1968, Yokota was asked to return to Hawaii and never took up teaching again.
“Teaching Japanese kids in English was challenging because they didn’t understand English at all,” Yokota, 86, said in an interview during a visit to Tokyo earlier this month. His trip to the capital came after he attended a June 30 ceremony on Chichijima marking the 50th anniversary of the Ogasawara chain’s reversion to Japanese rule.
“They spoke Japanese at home, when they played in the schoolyard with their classmates, and of course they only spoke to their parents in Japanese,” Yokota said. “That meant the only time they spoke English, the language they were officially supposed to speak all the time, was in class.”
He recalled asking the students to stop using Japanese in the classroom.
At the school, which was attended by 90 students whose tuitions were covered by the U.S. government — the children were exposed to a full roster of Western-style life and culture. This included exchanging Christmas presents, participating in Easter egg hunts, watching American movies at an outdoor theater and playing softball with American children whose parents worked at the local U.S. base.
But it all ended on June 26, 1968, when the Ogasawara chain was officially returned to Japan.
“I didn’t want to leave, even though I had always known that one day it would be returned to Japanese control,” Yokota said. “I wasn’t worried so much about myself, but I was very concerned about the students.”
The end of the Occupation there marked the end of English-only education on the isles. From that point on, the children had to begin learning everything in Japanese, and Admiral Radford Elementary was closed later that year.
It was soon replaced by three separate Japanese elementary, junior high and high schools.
When Yokota heard the islands were returning to Japanese administration, his first concern was for the junior high students, who had been taught in English and could barely read or write Japanese despite speaking it at home.
“I wasn’t too worried about the younger ones in kindergarten, or first to third grade, because they had sufficient time to learn Japanese,” Yokota said. “The ones that concerned me most were in the middle — the sixth- and seventh-grade students. When they started Japanese school, they would not be attending for 12 years, they would have a few years at most,” he explained.
As the end of the Occupation loomed, Yokota asked the commander of the U.S. Navy facility on the island for permission to begin teaching the students Japanese. With his permission, and assistance from a Japanese priest, Yokota started a Japanese class after school to teach the children hiragana and katakana.
But just as Yokota feared, the abrupt shift in language and culture cast a shadow over the lives of many of the teenagers, including Rance Ohira, one of his students.
Ohira, 17, heard about the impending reversion just a day before it took place while in high school in Guam. During the Occupation, most of the island’s seventh- and eighth-graders attended school in Guam, where they could stay in U.S. military housing in exchange for working part-time.
“On the day before the return, me and my island friend, who was attending the same school, talked about whether we would stay here or go back to attend the Japanese school in Ogasawara,” Ohira, 67, said in a telephone interview from Chichijima in Japanese last week.
“We decided that we would have to live as Japanese citizens sooner or later, so it would be better for us to go back.”
All of the students from the islands were given Japanese passports in Guam a few months before the reversion. Until then, the young islanders had neither U.S. nor Japanese passports. Instead, they were issued a U.S. travel document that allowed them to live and work in U.S. territory.
Immediately after returning to the Ogasawara Islands in 1968, Ohira and other students from Admiral Radford Elementary were invited to visit Tokyo by then-Gov. Ryokichi Minobe.
Upon setting foot on the mainland for the first time in his life, Ohira was beset by culture shock.
“I was stunned that the Japanese girls were wearing hot pants just like the girls in Guam, because I thought they were all still wearing kimono,” Ohira said. “My eyes almost popped out of my head.”
Ohira finished his last year of high school on Chichijima but said he was never able to become proficient in Japanese.
“Actually, the teachers were top-notch, very kind and could speak both Japanese and English fluently. However, I could only learn a little Japanese by staying at the school for just a year,” he said.
After graduating, Ohira found work as a mechanic at the Tokyo Electric Power Co. office on Chichijima. Because of his poor Japanese skills, however, he thought he could be easily replaced.
To avoid that fate, he went back to Guam to resume his U.S. high school education.
Ohira spent the next 24 years in the U.S., serving in the U.S. military as a naturalized American and later moving to San Francisco, where he worked as an engineer in Silicon Valley for nine years.
“With my educational background, I would have never reached this high status if I had pursued a career in Japan,” Ohira said. “In the U.S., the more and harder I worked, the more rewards I could obtain.”
Despite becoming a U.S. citizen, Ohira eventually returned to Chichijima to settle down and now runs a Western-style bar there called Yankee Town. Asked how he identifies himself, he said: “I think I’m American living in Chichijima.” Despite the struggles and identity issues, Ohira said he was always thankful for how well Yokota treated him, and how well he taught everyone in English. “Mr. Yokota was wonderful,” he said.
In Tokyo, Yokota recalled what he said during the 40th anniversary reversion ceremony on Chichijima 10 years ago.
“I said, ‘It was not your fault. The problems arose because of the agreements between the two countries. But you should be proud that you can speak, read, and write both languages. Not many people can do such a thing, so this is something you can be happy about. Don’t forget it.’ ”
But this time, upon making the trip to Chichijima from Seattle, where he lives with his wife and son, Yokota said he realized it was time to say farewell.
“To the students of Radford School, thank you for your patience with me from 1956 to 1968,” he told the students. “As I look back, they were the best of years for me. Every time I hear you speak English, it makes me very happy. You will be always with me in my heart. However, due to my age, this most likely will be my last trip.”