When Half Is Whole: Multiethnic Asian American Identities

When Half Is Whole: Multiethnic Asian American Identities

by Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu

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"I listen and gather people's stories. Then I write them down in a way that I hope will communicate something to others, so that seeing these stories will give readers something of value. I tell myself that this isn't going to be done unless I do it, just because of who I am. It's a way of making my mark, leaving something behind . . . not that I'm planning on going anywhere right now." So explains Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu in this touching, introspective, and insightful examination of mixed race Asian American experiences. The son of an Irish American father and Japanese mother, Murphy-Shigematsu uses his personal journey of identity exploration and discovery of his diverse roots to illuminate the journeys of others. Throughout the book, his reflections are interspersed among portraits of persons of biracial and mixed ethnicity and accounts of their efforts to answer a seemingly simple question: Who am I? Here we meet Norma, raised in postwar Japan, the daughter of a Japanese woman and an American serviceman, who struggled to make sense of her ethnic heritage and national belonging. Wei Ming, born in Australia and raised in the San Francisco of the 1970s and 1980s, grapples as well with issues of identity, in her case both ethnic and sexual. We also encounter Rudy, a "Mexipino"; Marshall, a "Jewish, adopted Korean"; Mitzi, a "Blackinawan"; and other extraordinary people who find how connecting to all parts of themselves also connects them to others. With its attention on people who have been regarded as "half" this or "half" that throughout their lives, these stories make vivid the process of becoming whole.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804783958
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 10/10/2012
Series: Asian America
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 248
Sales rank: 1,077,155
File size: 467 KB

About the Author

Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu was born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and Irish-American father and raised in Massachusetts. He received a doctorate in psychology from Harvard University, was professor at Tokyo University, and is consulting professor at Stanford University and Fielding Graduate University. He is the author of Multicultural Encounters and Amerasian Children.

Read an Excerpt

When Half Is Whole

By Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu


Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7518-2

Chapter One

Flowers Amidst the Ashes

The end of the war liberated my mother. Like many other Japanese, for the first time she was able to imagine how she might make a life free from the oppression of the military state. It was a time when everything was in flux, presenting the opportunity to do things that had never been possible. Claiming she knew some English, my mother boldly sought a job at the U.S. General Headquarters, and when an American she met there asked her to date, she took a chance and went out with him. When he later asked her to marry, she decided that she was willing to take on that challenge too and accepted his proposal. My grandparents must have been moved too by the new space that existed in society, because they allowed the American to move into their Tokyo home. The American, who became my father, was also crossing boundaries and stepping into the unknown when he decided to marry a Japanese, have children with her, and live with her family in Japan. We, the children of postwar unions, were simply the products of our parents' revolutionary actions. Some of us were born unwelcomed into the world, while others were seen as flowers amidst the ashes—new life springing forth with hope and promise from the devastated land.

Parents like ours came together in a natural way as man and woman in an unnatural environment created by the forces of war and military occupation. Authorities on both sides tried to keep them apart, or at least keep them from marrying, but they came together anyway and offered each other what they could. For some the encounters were brief and utilitarian, but others endured and forged relationships that pressured the authorities to enable them to marry and travel freely to the United States as husband and wife and as families.

Norma Field's mother became one of these "war brides," marrying a man from Los Angeles in 1946 at the American consulate in Yokohama when such marriages were rare. A woman I met in San Francisco, Kazue Katz, told me that she was the first of these war brides in Occupied Japan. Her marriage would not have been allowed in California, one of many states that prohibited marriages between whites and "Mongolians" at that time. Kazue described her husband, Frederick H. Katz, as a persistent man who gathered twenty-nine supporting letters, including one from General MacArthur, to persuade the authorities to permit him to marry her. They had to overcome not only family opposition but also social disapproval and a legal system designed to prevent such marriages.

Recognizing that American men wanted to marry women they met during the war, the U.S. Congress passed the War Brides Act in 1945 to enable them to bring their brides home. But this applied only to European brides, not to Asians. Not until 1952 did it became legal for most Americans to marry and take Japanese brides to America. By then, the opposition had forced many couples apart and contributed to thousands of children being abandoned by their fathers, some also by their mothers. Exactly how many is unknown. Japanese officials wanted to publicize the children as a social problem created by the Occupation, but U.S. officials succeeded in crushing such unwanted publicity that would negate the image of a kind and gentle Occupation.

Unlike Kazue's and Norma's parents, my mother and civilian father were more like many others who tried to marry, encountering numerous legal hurdles and hassles and failed attempts at both the ward office in Tokyo and at the U.S. embassy. My parents' experiences were like those of the couple in the Sayonara story of the Michener novel and Brando film, in which the Japanese and American lovers have to run the gauntlet to get married. One couple decides a love suicide is better than the forced separation they are faced with, and in the book the Brando character, deciding that maybe the general was right in opposing his marriage, abandons his Japanese sweetheart to find an American girl back home. But by the time the movie was made in 1957, three years after the book was published, Hollywood, like much of the U.S. government and some of the American public, had decided it was all right for an American like Brando to marry a Japanese woman, though we don't know whether they live happily ever after.

My parents stayed together, though it took until 1951 for their marriage to be legalized. By that time my father had been living in my mother's family home in Tokyo for three years and two children had been born. Nationality laws that made Norma an American because her parents were married made my two older sisters Japanese because my parents were not married. My sisters were registered in my mother's family register as Shigematsus. Since my parents were married at the time of my birth I received an American birth certificate with the name Murphy.

Marriage with an American meant new privileges, such as the use of St. Luke's Hospital in Tsukiji where I was born. I was the third child, and the extra mouth to feed increased my mother's secret journeys across Tokyo. My dad had military purchasing power as a civilian employee of the U.S. Armed Forces. Mom would buy goods at the PX and sell them at Ueno on the black market. She had to do this because food and supplies were scarce and because my father had trouble arriving home on Friday evening with his week's wages. On the way home he encountered not only bars but also people he thought were deserving souls with greater need. My obaachan (grandmother) called him obakasan, a "wonderful fool." He did manage to arrive home with some of his pay, some of the time, and with my grandfather's income as a Tokyo policeman we were a lot better off than the kids whose fathers abandoned them. Such children were scattered throughout Japan wherever there were Americans, and little is known of their lives except for the few who became famous athletes, musicians, and entertainers.

Tomoko, a girl born the same year as me, had been a baby bearing the looks of the father, whom the child was never to meet. He left before she was born and from her earliest memories the father she knew was a Japanese man her mother had married. She lived a quiet life in her mother's hometown north of Tokyo, growing up in a family surrounded by loving relatives, in an ordinary neighborhood, attending the local schools, speaking Japanese, and doing just what the other kids did. Rough boys bullied her sometimes, but friends would come to her rescue and protect her from their name-calling and insults. When people would rudely ask her whether she was American she would evade their question, pretending not to hear or making a joke.

Tomoko was adored in her large extended family and surrounded by love. Only occasionally was she torn from her warm feelings of oneness when she would be shocked to realize that she was different—she was the "American" in the family. Her favorite niece once stunned her by announcing to everyone in an innocent childlike manner, "I am Japanese and Tomoko is American." She never looked at her niece again without a twinge of hurt. When she stared at her own reflection in the mirror she was surprised to see that she did look different from others, as if she had never noticed before. But Tomoko wondered why she would always be the "American," when it was only her face and nothing else that made her American. Even when I met her as an adult, she was consumed with dreams in which only her face would appear.

Most of the mixed ancestry kids grew up in obscurity like Tomoko, encountering other problems later in life in marriage and employment discrimination. While some became celebrities, a few became nationally known for their deviance. One was a teenager convicted of several murders who professed hatred not only of women but of his own dark skin. His shocking story of abandonment by both parents and his life of fighting the prejudice and discrimination directed at him exposed the public to the reality of the tragic dimensions of such lives. While his case provoked reflection and perhaps sympathy in some, it also no doubt reinforced fears of the mixed blood kids as illegitimate and mentally disturbed children of prostitutes, further stigmatizing them.

Fortunately, these extreme cases were rare. The postwar era is characterized not only by tragedy but also by the inspiring story of Sawada Miki, the daughter of a noble family married to a man who was once ambassador to the United Nations. Sawada claims that her life changed dramatically one day when an apparently mixed race baby fell into her lap from the overhead luggage compartment when she was traveling on a train. The incident shocked her into action and she dedicated her property and life to establishing and running an orphanage, the Elizabeth Saunders Home, where more than a thousand mixed blood children were raised.

Sawada believed that the children needed to be separated from an unforgiving Japanese society and sheltered in her institution. She drew attention to the plight of these children, leading novelist Pearl Buck to establish a foundation in 1964 to help what she called "Amerasians," kids who were born all over Asia, wherever the U.S. military went. Her foundation helped Sawada to buy land in the Amazon area of Brazil and establish the St. Stephen Farm as a utopian place for the Saunders kids to emigrate and settle. Sawada's policy was to seek their futures outside of Japan either in Brazil or through adoption into American families. Although she was able to arrange hundreds of adoptions, only a few children ever made it to Brazil and most mixed blood kids were left to fend for themselves in Japanese society.

Hirano Imao, himself of mixed American and Japanese ancestry, was another advocate in the postwar period. Hirano's philosophy was different from Sawada's, and he focused his energy on integrating the children into Japanese society. Perhaps because he himself had to do so, he believed that they should and could live in Japan rather than seek another place in the world. Hirano helped by legally adopting many kids and offering individual and group support and guidance for them.

Sawada segregated her children because postwar Japan was not a welcoming place for the children who bore the stigma of being fathered by the American conquerors and occupiers. Some claim that the children were a painful reminder of American dominance and Japanese subjugation. Those without the protection of a father or mother's family were especially stigmatized and scapegoated. The Saunders Home children included commuters like those in the family of Suzuki Masako. She would escort cousins to the home for school and then pick them up and return them to their families in Yokohama. These kids lived in two worlds—the home in which they were surrounded by others whose faces were marked by the signs of mixed race and the neighborhood in which they were singled out as different.

While the story of Sawada's children has been told often, stories of those raised out in Japanese society are mostly tales of victimization. Norma's writing gives us a rare look into the world of a girl of the postwar era living in a Japanese neighborhood while attending school on a U.S. military base. I first encountered Norma in her classic In the Realm of a Dying Emperor: A Portrait of Japan at Century's End. In this book, and even more so in her subsequent family story, From My Grandmother's Bedside: Sketches of Postwar Tokyo, Norma paints a picture of a life I both knew and never knew. Her portraits of postwar, Occupation Japan and the life of a typical and atypical family living in Tokyo resonated with me so deeply that I began a correspondence with Norma as if I already knew her and she would know me. I have never felt more clearly the power of narrative, in which one person's story can touch others and enable them to bring forth their own story.

In Norma's house and in mine in Suginami-ku, our mothers' American husbands "squeezed into" our family homes. Norma's father stayed until she was in second grade and then "abandoned, or was expelled from, the family," ending an eight-year marriage. Her mother kept herself separated from the rest of the neighborhood after a bout with tuberculosis and the end of her marriage with the American. Norma's world was a mixture of Japanese and American, with sharp dividing lines. She felt that the bus that shuttled her back and forth between her Tokyo neighborhood and her American school was like a "space machine" that she would ride with a sense of wonder. The "chocolate-colored bus" carried her each weekday morning through the streets of Tokyo from her home to the military base and then at three o'clock in the afternoon went back through the gates, retracing the route to drop her off near her "unmistakably native house" where an "unmistakably native woman" would be waiting for her.

Norma reflects on how she explained the native woman to her bus-mates. "Did I tell them she was the-my-maid? Did I wait until the bus turned in the dust before I crossed the street and passed through the gate?" I too was a child wondering how to deal with such incongruities in the worlds of my home and school. And I wonder how the adults in my life dealt with these obvious differences that others, especially children, noticed all too clearly.

After we moved from Tokyo to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, my Japanese mother stood out wherever we went. Even her name was different, something no one had ever heard and no one could pronounce. The Christian missionaries tried to call her "Theresa" but my dad got mad and told them they should call her by her name, Toshiko. I was not as bold, and when my classmate's mother asked me what my mother's name was, I told her I didn't know. When she persisted that surely I knew my own mother's name, I insisted that I did not. And when she asked, "Well then what does your dad call her?" I made her laugh and give up the inquisition by cleverly evading her—"He just says, 'Hey you.'" In my Catholic school the nuns taught us about Peter denying Jesus three times, and I wondered if I was just as bad. But how could I explain my mother to my classmates and their mothers? I wanted to be seen as American, but my face was a constant reminder to others that I was something else. My mother was an even stronger sign that we were foreign. How could I explain who she was to people who could not even pronounce her name—who didn't even seem to try?

Just as I knew I was not "a real American," Norma knew that she was not "a real Japanese" from a normal home and so shouldn't ask to play with the neighborhood children. She was stigmatized for having an American father, as was her mother for the relationship with the father and its demise. Norma bore the markers of his genes in her face. She reflected on what children like us may signify to others:

Many years into my growing up, I thought I had understood the awkward piquancy of biracial children with the formulation, they are nothing if not the embodiment of sex itself; now I modify it to, the biracial offspring of war even more offensive and intriguing because they bear the imprint of sex as domination.

Reading this passage I am reminded of a confusing incident in childhood. My Irish Aunt Margaret, who like several of my dad's siblings had never married or had children, delighted in dressing me up and taking me downtown to show off. One day we were walking down Main Street and a man stopped her and asked about my dad. She told him he was back from Japan and that I was his son, proudly beaming down at me. The big man looked down too and stared, at first with a quizzical expression and then suddenly breaking into a big smile as if he was recalling some fond memories. "I've got some kids over there myself," he boasted. Margaret's smile vanished and her sweet face became suddenly fierce. She looked him in the eye and said, "Well, my brother's not like that!" She pulled me hard by the hand and we walked away from that man.

My Irish aunts and uncles may not have understood our situation, but they struggled to help overcome the stereotypes and stigmas we faced. They taught us good manners and proper etiquette. They showered the priests and nuns with gifts of stationery from the paper factory where my Aunt Joanna worked, so that we were admitted to the St. Mary's School a year early, receiving a classic Catholic education steeped in tradition and strict discipline. Our aunts bought us only the finest clothes so that on Sunday we would be seen at church looking proper. They took us out to the fanciest restaurants, where we all ordered lobster, the most expensive item on the menu, so that we would not appear or feel small and poor. As we looked at the menu and noticed the prices, they would look at us and say with a smile, "It's okay, you can order the lobster." So even when we didn't want lobster, we ordered lobster.

The racially stigmatized need to work hard to overcome the stigma. By my behavior, I always had to show others how well I was brought up, how even a child like me, so marked by my race, could be a good boy, a smart boy, a credit to his family. I didn't realize at the time that I was also stigmatized by my father's alcoholism. My dad was the only man I knew who didn't drive a car, but I never fathomed what a social misfit he was, though I could sometimes sense it. In many ways, my Japanese mother was seen by society as the more normal one in the marriage, highly respected in the community as a wife for enduring her wayward husband's antics and as a mother for bringing up three respectable "half-breed" kids.

Norma's favorite aunt made sure that she was well brought up, and taught her some English so she could adjust to the American school. While she may have impressed with her manners, Norma's physical appearance would immediately overwhelm all other information received by the senses, rendering her a half-breed child more than anything else. Like my aunt, Norma's hoped that good manners and good grades would compensate for the disadvantages she was given.

Her aunt succeeded to the extent that Norma believed the neighborhood children avoided her because she was superior to them and not because she was a half-breed. Unlike some others from single mother homes, she still bore the signs of her parents' marriage, in her name and in her privilege of attending the American school. She could speak English, if anyone cared to know. And as if to prove that she really was Japanese she could show off her knowledge of strange kanji characters.


Excerpted from When Half Is Whole by Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior . Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue 1

1 Flowers Amidst the Ashes 7

2 We Must Go On 25

3 For the Community 43

4 English, I Don't Know! 61

5 Bi Bi Girl 81

6 I Am Your Illusion, Your Reality, Your Future 97

7 Grits and Sushi 117

8 I Cut across Borders as If They Have No Meaning 135

9 Victims No More 155

10 American Girl in Asia 175

11 Found in Translation 193

Epilogue 211

Notes 221

Recommended Readings 229

About the Author 235

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