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Home > Special Topics > Social Trends Last Updated: 15:18 03/09/2007
Social Trends #15: November 8, 2002

International Marriages in Japan: Part Three - Amerasian Children in Okinawa

J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)

A full list of articles in this series can be found here.

This is the third in a series of articles on various aspects of "international marriage" (a union in which initially one of the spouses is a non-Japanese citizen).

In Part One (International Marriages in Japan: Part One - Visa status of non-Japanese spouses in 2002) and Part Two (International Marriages in Japan: Part Two Impact of 17 October 2002 Supreme Court decision on International Marriages) of this series, the inadequacies of the current legal framework for international marriages were analyzed and in this article some of the social problems relating to international marriage in Okinawa are examined.

In Okinawa, a Japanese-American union is the most common type of international marriage. These kinds of marriages have a major impact on the social fabric of the island prefecture. In 1998, Okinawa was slightly above the national average for international marriages with 4.6% of all unions there involving a non-Japanese spouse. What distinguished these matches from the rest of Japan was that the vast majorities were between a Japanese bride and an American groom. Nationally, in about 80% of international marriages, the husband is Japanese and wife is from a neighboring Asian country. When one considers that in 2001 Americans only made up 0.026% of the total population of Japan, the number of Japanese-American marriages in Okinawa is quite astounding. Many of these unions produce offspring. According to Okinawan government estimates, each year about two hundred Amerasian children are born in the prefecture.

Okinawa enjoys a strong overall marriage rate, but it also suffers from an equally high divorce rate. For example, in 1999, the Okinawan divorce rate was 2.78 per thousand people. This was well above the national average of 2.00 and was higher than the divorce rates of many European countries. The high divorce rate also partially explains why the prefecture has the highest ratio of mother-headed households in the country. While quite a number of international marriages in Okinawa are very successful, these unions are not immune from the strong regional divorce trend.

Unlike the marriage statistics, published divorce figures do not record the nationality of the divorcees, but research shows that separation rates for couples of mixed nationality in the prefecture are extremely high. This has led to one of Okinawa's the most disturbing and normally concealed social problems. Over the past decade, American servicemen have deserted thousands of children and returned to their home country.

Local authorities and researchers have compiled figures for the number of abandoned Amerasian children. It is estimated that there are between 3,900 to 4,000 such children in Okinawa. The figure probably underestimates the true scale of the problem.

Calculations are mainly based on children abandoned by American fathers in Okinawa and not in the United States. Okinawan women returning with children after a divorce in America are sometimes missed by the statisticians and researchers. Another problem with compiling data is that some women are abandoned by their American partners before giving birth. These mothers are often reluctant to name the father in official documents.

The breathtaking tropical beauty of the islands that make up the Okinawa territory are deceptive, concealing a host of deep-seated socio-economic woes. Social scientists believe that the weak and undeveloped regional economy is a major contributing factor behind the high rate of marital breakdown in the prefecture.

Okinawa has one of the weakest regional economies in Japan, which creates a unique set of social problems. The prefecture's economic disparity can be clearly seen in its high unemployment rate, which stood at a record 9.4% in September 2002. This was the highest in the country and nearly double the national average of 5.4% for the same month. Okinawa also has the highest rate of unemployment for high school and university graduates. Furthermore, those in employment have the lowest wage levels in the country.

Many of Okinawa's complex social problems stem from the overwhelming presence of American forces based on the islands, which dominate and distort the economy of the prefecture.* While Okinawa accounts for just 0.7% of Japan's total land mass, Okinawa provides about 75% of the land used exclusively by the United States military forces based in Japan. There are about 20,000 to 22,000 United States military personnel stationed in Okinawa. To put this figure in perspective, there were 46,244 Americans living in Japan in 2001. Thus, tiny Okinawa accounted for just under half of all American citizens living in the country. This massive concentration of Americans in such a tiny corner of the country has inevitably created some unique social situations, such as the high ratio of Japanese-American marriages.

Children from lone-mother households in Okinawa are among the most economically deprived in the country. Besides the obvious disadvantages of poverty, abandoned Amerasian children often have to face various forms of discrimination. One of the major problems confronting these children is school bullying, which many encounter in Japan's conformist education system. Amerasian children born in the United States and unable to fluently speak Japanese usually face even greater difficulties.**

Sending such children to international schools is seen as a solution. However, for the vast majority of cash-strapped lone-mothers, this is not a viable option. The fees of such schools are normally beyond their budgetary means. As a result, many underprivileged Amerasian children end up in regular schools where they have high dropout rates. This compounds their economic woes, making the lives of already disadvantage children even worse. Since Okinawa already has the highest rates of lone-mother poverty in the country, it should come as no surprise to learn that the abandoned offspring of U.S. servicemen account for some of the poorest children in the whole of Japan.

Nearly all Japanese lone-mother households struggle to make ends meet. However, the poverty levels of Okinawan mothers represent some of the most severe in the country. According to a 1999 study, more than seventy percent of Okinawan lone-mother households had an income of less than 150,000 yen per month, equivalent to an annual income of 1.8 million yen. To put this into perspective, the income of the average Japanese household for 2000 was about 6.17 million yen. The national average annual income of a lone-mother household was just 2.52 million yen, which was not even a third of the average household income. Most Okinawan lone-mothers have incomes that fall well below even this meagre figure, trapping them in severe poverty. Poverty is often defined at the individual level by calculating if the person lives in a household with a size-adjusted disposable income that is less than half the median for the average household in the nation.***

One of the primary reasons for lone-mother poverty in Japan is that fathers do not financially support their children. This is largely due to Japan lacking a system for the collection of child support payments from non-compliant fathers. According to a 1999 Okinawan study, ninety percent of mothers did not receive any child support payments.****

If a Japanese father refuses to pay child support, no real action is taken against him. This is even more of a problem when the father is a U.S. serviceman. This is because once he returns home, the family usually lose all contact with him. Case studies show that some military personnel especially arrange to be transferred before their children are born, making it easier to abandon them. Until the late nineties, such behavior by deadbeat American fathers would lead to no reprisal in the United States.

In recent years, a few American military fathers have actually had to face up to their responsibilities. This is thanks to the work of some crusading lawyers in Okinawa. At present, if a serviceman moves back to the United States, it is now possible to take action against him for child maintenance in Okinawa. By contacting child support centres in the United States, court orders demanding DNA-paternity tests can be issued and child support payments deducted from delinquent fathers. Some Amerasian children have also used the internet to try to track down their fathers.*****

Even though delinquent American fathers now face the prospect of being prosecuted in family courts, the process takes a lot of time. This is because there is no treaty between Japan and America on the issue. Germany, Sweden and Britain all have individual agreements with America to cooperate in matters of child support involving the servicemen of their respective countries. However, despite talk of inserting a clause in the Status of Forces Agreement between the U.S. military and Japan, nothing has been done to date. The blame for this lies squarely with Japan, which lacks a system for tracking down non-compliant fathers, conducting DNA-paternity tests and deducing money from the delinquent father's salary. At the moment a bilateral treaty would not be viable, as Japan could not reciprocate for claims made in the United States. Japan needs to establish an effective system for making its own non-compliant fathers pay child support.

The current tragedy of thousands of abandoned Amerasian children living in abject poverty is not something that is going to be addressed without some serious political effort from both countries. Proper safeguards are needed to ensure these children do not end up in legal limbo between the two states. A bilateral treaty would certainly help alleviate some of the unfortunate social problems. If the United States military genuinely wants to improve relations with the people of Okinawa, then it needs to ensure its servicemen take responsibility for their offspring. The fact that children born in Okinawa of parents from the world's two richest nations are some of the poorest in Japan is a shameful matter for both countries.


* Handover of Okinawa to Japan was prickly issue
Sayuri Daimon, Japan Times, 14 May 2002

Postwar legacy holds key to identity of Okinawans
Mayumi Negishi, Japan Times, 15 August 2002

Okinawa election again boils down to two themes
Yosuke Naito, Japan Times, 31 October 2002

U.S. wants no reductions in Okinawa
Japan Times, 28 April 2002

** Amerasians of Japan, South Korea to meet in Okinawa
Japan Times, 15 August 2002

Amerasian pupil gets diploma
Japan Times, 25 March 2000

*** Poorest Japanese Families Getting Poorer
Social Trends: Series #4, GLOCOM Platform, 28 August 2002

**** Child Support Payments in 2002
Social Trends: Series #6, GLOCOM Platform, 9 September 2002

***** Amerasian kids get short shrift in divorce capital of Japan
Mayumi Negishi, Japan Times, 20 July 2000

Amerasians get on Net to find GI dads
Japan Times, 22 June 2000

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