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Dear Japanese: Children of War

English | 日本語

Miyuki Okuyama, H and F, 2012

Miyuki Okuyama, H and F, 2012. Black-and-white photograph, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist © Miyuki Okuyama. The twin brothers spent their childhood in an orphanage.

People who live abroad often develop fresh perspectives on their homelands, their new situations prompting them to face aspects of their personal identities.
Miyuki Okuyama, Claudine and her mother, 2013

Miyuki Okuyama, Claudine and her mother, 2013. Black-and-white photograph, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist © Miyuki Okuyama. Claudine has been searching for her biological father since 1973.

Miyuki Okuyama, Edward, 2012

Miyuki Okuyama, Edward, 2012. Black-and-white photograph, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist © Miyuki Okuyama. Edward found out that his biological father was Japanese when he was 56 years old.

Miyuki Okuyama, Joyce, 2013

Miyuki Okuyama, Joyce, 2013. Black-and-white photograph, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist © Miyuki Okuyama. As an infant, Joyce lived in Japan with her parents. Unable to adapt to life there, she and her mother returned to Indonesia.

   

The Netherlands ruled over the Indonesian archipelago for more than three centuries, giving rise to a population of Dutch-Indonesians. In 1942, with the introduction of Dai-tō-a Kyōeiken (Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere), Japan attacked and occupied the Dutch East Indies. As soldiers in the Netherlands East Indies army, many Dutch-Indonesian males (as well as most Europeans) were jailed, and their wives and daughters left to fend for themselves.

My photographic series Dear Japanese is a work-in-progress that documents the offspring of Japanese fathers and Dutch-Indonesian mothers, individuals who were born during World War II and who now live in the Netherlands. It is a work of subjective documentary assembled from a personal perspective, a visual record of compatriots in a foreign land. People who live abroad often develop fresh perspectives on their homelands, their new situations prompting them to face aspects of their personal identities. As an immigrant from a former enemy country, Japan, I can now share their pride in being Japanese, coupled with feelings of alienation and guilt.

Soon after I moved to the Netherlands in 2008, one of my fellow Japanese introduced me to a book called Watashi wa Darenoko (Vader, wie ben je?) by Yoko Huijs-Watanuki. This concerns Japanese descendants living in the Netherlands, who were born in the former Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) between 1942 and 1945, during the Japanese occupation, to Japanese fathers—soldiers—and Indo-European mothers. They are the fruits of relationships based on love in some cases and economic need in others, while a few were born from sexual assault. There are reportedly several hundred of these people in the Netherlands, although the precise number is unknown. Some of those I know personally found out about their Japanese roots when they were over fifty years old, and it is not difficult to imagine that many others still know nothing of their Japanese ancestry, the truth having often been kept a family secret.

After Japan’s capitulation, during the chaos of the Indonesian War of Independence, the Dutch-Indonesian population had to escape from newly established Indonesia to their unknown homeland. For them, Japan was the enemy who had ruined their tropical paradise, and killed enormous numbers of people, both in labor camps and in battle. Many half-Japanese children grew up in an atmosphere of hostility towards Japan, and many even had stepfathers who were interned in the notorious Japanese POW camps. These children were traumatized because their very existence, mention of which was taboo, brought shame to their families. Almost 70 years after the war, many of these people are still searching for their biological fathers as an important missing piece of their identities, and are suffering from the lasting psychological effects of a difficult childhood. It is only in the last five to ten years that they have begun, gradually, to open up about their personal histories.

After reading Huijs-Watanuki’s account, I contacted the author, who invited me to meet some Japanese descendants; the experience was surprising in that these individuals’ Japanese features appeared clearly visible. I understood then that, for many people, the war is not quite over. Since none of my immediate family members died in the war or were affected deeply by it, this encounter became my first tangible war experience. In spring 2012, I began interviewing and shooting portraits of first- and second-generation Japanese descendants in the Netherlands, with the aim of portraying more than twenty by the end of 2013.

In Japan, Japanese mixed-race descendants have rarely featured in the popular media. Unfortunately, Japanese wrongdoing during World War II has not been fully aired at home, even while Japanese people living abroad have not been able to avoid their national history. Regardless of Japanese descendants’ trauma, and their sensitive position, I hope that my project will encourage a greater awareness of these people in Japan and elsewhere. These people are special and their experiences, while painful, are valuable.

Miyuki Okuyama is an artist based in the Netherlands and an establishing member of the Japanese Dutch Foundation.

How have other contemporary artists of mixed ancestry explored their heritages’ complexities?

  • bob

    HUH?

    • MichaelJWilson

      Could you be more specific, Bob? What’s your query?

  • MichaelJWilson

    Artist Ellen Gallagher, the daughter of an African-American father and an Irish-American mother, often explores issues of racial identity, stereotyping, and cultural history in her paintings, drawings, collages, sculptures, and films: http://www.gagosian.com/artists/ellen-gallagher