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Okinawa’s Pioneer Amerasian Institution Faces Brighter Future

By: Kishor Gidwani, Student Intern

Date Posted: 2000-01-15

What started as a seperation from the biggest International School in Okinawa, due to reports of its new campus being built on top of an industrial waste dump, has now become a pedestal for addressing issues of Amerasians on Okinawa and - at times - throughout the country. This small, yet lively school stands between MCAS Futenma and the waters of the East China Sea, promising to bring the needs of biracial children to the forefront in the 21st Century.

Midori Mimi Thayer and Masae Yonamine, both of whom are parents of former OCSI students and co-founders of the Amerasian School in Okinawa (AASO), contend that it took more than just health concerns to cause them and 80 other children to withdraw from OCSI in search of other means of education for their children. “We didn’t want to take any chances; when we tried to get the city officials in Yomitan involved, they were not interested in cooperating, at the same time we wanted our children to learn both English and Japanese simultaneously, thereby preparing them more realistically for the real world” said Yonamine.

“The nurturing of both cultures also leads to a better image of themselves,” Thayer added.

This need for a more balanced development of equally important identities seems to be the biggest problem for Amerasian students everywhere they exist in big numbers. Maria Tomiyama was educated solely in the Japanese public school system. Now she feels that, even though Amerasians share the American heritage, they are allowed to learn about their western heritage only after spending significant amounts of money. Tomiyama currently spends all of her free time helping the AASO. She still has memories of being bullied and negatively stereotyped throughout her childhood. “The only American influence I could’ve had as a child, my father, left before he got to see my face. When in the 5th grade I wanted to discover my roots, the money just wasn’t there. I felt like the only way to a successful life in Japan would be to throw away my foreign identity.”

She held the first meeting of The Amerasian Network, which is currently based out of AASO, in mid-December, and says that plans of becoming an independent non-profit organization are already underway. She hopes to build her English skills through intensive studies, while helping to develop the Okinawan side of the Amerasian students in school, by teaching them the art and history of their island. Tomiyama is also trying to break the cycle of hiding or minimizing one’s ethnic minority, a factor which is still commonplace in Japanese society today.

Irene Warner, another one of over 300 supporters of the 38-student school in Ginowan, tells a more light hearted story of growing up Amerasian. “I went to an on-base school and lived in a very Japanese part of the island,” she says. Even though the standards of both cultures confused her at times, she was always told by her parents that her label as “half” was not negative; in fact, it was something she should cherish and consider herself lucky for. Irene is now an executive in an International health and nutrition company in Tokyo. She supports AASO financially and serves as a role model for those children who remind her of herself. “I want them to know that everyone, regardless of race, has a chance to succeed. It’s all up to the individual.”

The Amerasian School in Okinawa has painstakingly gone through the process of trying to get recognition from the Prefectual government. “I don’t understand why other prefectures give generously to their international schools, yet Okinawa with over 3,500 Amerasians and its supposed international trade agenda are so hesitant to recognize a school that is taught 50% in English,” Thayer argues. Currently, a graduate of AASO will have to petition individually to his or her local board of education. Most cities are gaining more and more respect for the AASO, partially due to the high standards of education it is pursuing. AASO actually meets all requirements that the national board of education has listed. Prefectural funding is the only holdback at this point. According to school authoritiies, many politicians seem to be touched in their hearts, but admit that their hands are tied when it comes to funding. “Although it’s harder to function without prefectural funding, we have overwhelming support from the community,” says Yonamine.

Everyone from the Ryukyu University department of Multicultural Studies to the Carribean Heritage Association has come out to support the cause. One of their former student-teachers has also arranged for the students to be taught Eisa (traditional Okinawan Dance honoring ancestors) throughout the month of January. An Osaka-based television station is currently filming a documentary on the school. It is probably interested in the school because it is the only school in Japan that offers general education classes in both the English and Japanese languages.

By all estimates, the inauguration of the Amerasian School of Okinawa came with perfect timing. With more and more upper-class Japanese children entering traditional international schools, the costs of education in such institutions are constantly rising. These are prices which the majority of single-parent households with Amerasian children cannot afford. Also, The continued support of adult Amerasians, through institutions such as Warner’s and Tomiyama’s, also provide a strong social foundation for the school. The opening up of the Japanese education system, compared to its rigid standards merely a decade ago, can also be considered as a catalyst permitting the success of the schools.

For those who would like to contribute to the Amer Asian School in Okinawa Fund, or the Amerasian Network, please contact Midori or Masae at (098)898-4255; or email the directors at aaschool@m1.cosmos.ne.jp.

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