Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
I entered this world as Mitsuru Shimabukuro. My mom, originally from Okinawa, gave birth to me in Tökyö when she was 16 years old. As a child herself, she was in no position to care for me. Reluctantly, she left me in the care of an orphanage, hoping to reclaim me later. That never happened, and I was sent to Hawai‘i, where I was adopted by Calvin and Ruth Wakai, who allowed me to rewrite my destiny and live the American Dream.
My life’s journey has been filled with anguish, mystery, hope and happiness. I was 5 years old when my parents told me that I was adopted, so I grew up knowing I was adopted. Still, it was my deepest secret. During my hanabata days, I viewed it as a “disability” and thought I would be bullied. But it was easy to hide because I looked like my adoptive parents. They treated me like their own child and I viewed them as my God-given parents.
They were both Nisei. My father, Calvin, from Kapa’a, spent 35 years with Bank of Hawai‘i. My mother, Ruth, from Hilo, was a flight attendant for Pan American World Airways. One of her roles was to care for unaccompanied orphans from Japan and Korea on their way to America. Once they landed in Honolulu, her job was done. However, instead of leaving them at the airport for their connecting flight to the Mainland, my mom would take them home — bathe them, feed them and tuck them into bed. The next morning, she would take them back to the airport and send them off to begin their new lives in America. Today, that would be considered kidnapping. Back then, however, it was the right thing to do.
My parents could not have their own biological children, so it’s not surprising that they would adopt. They had planned on having just one child and adopted my older sister Sachi. But Sachi begged to have a little brother, and that’s how I ended up in Hawai‘i.
I was always curious about my past, but felt it was disrespectful to bring up the subject at home. I just went on with my life. I had a wonderful childhood growing up in Moanalua Valley. My mom and dad were strict, but always supportive of my unorthodox aspirations.
I graduated from Mid-Pacific Institute and went to college at the University of Southern California, where I majored in journalism. I did TV news reporting for 11 years. It was an exhilarating profession, but I felt empty. Every night, I would talk about what others were doing. I wanted to be a doer and decided to run for public office. I’ve been a politician now for 14 years.
My mother suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and passed away in October of 2013 at the age of 85. Five months later, my father passed away due to an aneurysm. My parents were inseparable in life, so it’s fitting that they are reunited in their afterlife.
In the summer of 2014, I felt the urge to search for my biological mother. My wife Miki, who is from Japan, immediately began making phone calls. Her diligence paid off. She was able to find the agency that had my records. Within two months they located my mother and we learned that she was receptive to reuniting with me. I was elated!
Four years after I was born, my mom, Yoko Shimabukuro, married David Boughton, a U.S. Marine in Okinawa. Before tying the knot, Yoko told David about me. They kept that secret to themselves for nearly 50 years.
My mother and stepfather visited Hawai‘i a few months later, in October 2014. Upon meeting her at the airport, I could see many of my own traits in her — she was short, personable and talkative. During her stay in Hawai‘i, we caught up on 46 years of separation. We laughed. We cried. She apologized. I forgave her.
To my astonishment, this was not their first trip to Hawai‘i. They were stationed at Kaneohe Marine Corps Base for two years in the 1980s. My half-brother, Michael, was born at Tripler Hospital, just five minutes from where I grew up in Moanalua Valley.
In November of 2015, my wife and I made our first trip to Okinawa to meet the rest of our newfound family. Immediately upon leaving the airport in Naha, we went to my mother’s deceased parents’ home in Ishikawa, where my mother and stepdad live. The little house she grew up in has become a family shrine. My mother showed me pictures of my grandparents and we prayed at the altar. She explained to her parents what had happened to Mitsuru and that I had finally made it home. If I had grown up there, I likely would have become a fisherman or a delivery driver.
The rest of our four days was a whirlwind of activity. My mother double-booked us everyday — lunch with one group of friends and dinner with more family. They were astonished by our story and many wept with joy.
I got to see a lot of restaurants and homes and was smothered in Okinawan hospitality. It was surreal to be meeting relatives for the first time at age 48. It was also remarkable to hug my brother Michael, who is now 36 years old. During our four days in Okinawa, we immersed ourselves into the food, culture and scenery of the island. Mitsuru finally got to explore his home.
My life has been marked by extremely good fortune. I came into the world under challenging circumstances, but the stars have lined up to provide answers to mysteries of my past. But I told my mother that we cannot bask in our own happiness — we need to share our blessings with others. Upon learning that the treatment of children in Japan had not changed since I was an orphan, I was eager to embark on a push towards family-based childcare.
Rays of sunshine are finally illuminating decades of darkness in the way Japan treats its abused or unwanted children. After 70 years of simply warehousing its abused or unwanted children, the Japanese Diet amended the Child Welfare Act to move more of them into a caring family setting.
The groundbreaking legislation passed three months ago mandates that the current rate of foster care will increase from 12 percent to 30 percent by 2029. (By comparison, 77 percent of children in the United States are placed in foster care.) No more orphanages will be built in Japan as the system moves from 150-bed institutions toward family or small-group homes.
In May 2014, Human Rights Watch released a report, “Children Without Dreams,” which documented how most of Japan’s 40,000 orphans are unable to maintain stable relationships. Many end up psychologically scarred, part of the sex trade or committing suicide. That is likely how my life would have unfolded — I was raised in an orphanage in Tökyö for the first year and a half of my life.
When my parents adopted me in 1967, I was among the only 1 percent of children in Japan who are adopted. My parents changed the course of my life. Today, as a Hawai‘i state senator, I have a unique opportunity to return to Japan and advocate for scores of children who are still being cared for by nurses and social workers.
As the daughter who came from a poor fisherman’s family, my birth mother was never in a position to speak in front of audiences. She mulled over my request for a while and decided to join my crusade. She said she was not around for the first half of my life, but will do anything I ask in the second half.
As luck would have it, we were reuniting just as a social reform movement that was gaining momentum in 2014. We joined a growing international community calling for Japan to deinstitutionalize its children.
Last year, my mother and I made two trips to Tökyö to meet with social workers, foundations and Diet members. We were very fortunate to have a private meeting with Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki, who heads Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. He held the key to unlocking any doors to change.
We told him our story. Minister Shiozaki was receptive to finally putting a child’s rights before their parents’ desires. He cautioned us, however, that progress would be slow. We understood — dynasties last for long periods of time, but they eventually end. I encouraged Minister Shiozaki to engrave his political legacy by becoming the “Martin Luther King Jr. of Japan.” The Harvard University graduate understood my pleas.
It would be nearly impossible for an orphan in Japan to ascend to creating national policy. Those who are elected to the Diet almost always come from pedigree or wealthy families. If little Mitsuru had grown up in Japan, I would never have had facetime with lawmakers. The irony of the situation is that I had to leave Japan in order to be in a position to have a positive impact on my birthplace.
Although amending the Child Welfare Act was a significant step, much more needs to be done. I plan to keep my foot on the gas and continue advocating for Japan’s children. It has become my passion.
Growing up, I thought I was a discarded mistake. I know better now. I hold no ill feelings for my mother. I am eternally grateful that she gave birth to me and that she opened her heart and accepted me back into her life. I believe my biological father still lives in Okinawa. For me, connecting with my mother is more important, for she carried me in her body and gave me life.
Mommy and I call each other occasionally. She just got a Smartphone, so we now use FaceTime and connect via social media. She plans to come here for my 50th birthday next year.
My adoptive parents gave me limitless opportunities. I chase rainbows every day because of them and because I am an eternal optimist. I believe that every keiki is overflowing with potential and deserves to be raised in a loving environment. We can never give up on children.
Glenn Wakai is a state senator who represents Kalihi, Mäpunapuna, Honolulu International Airport, Salt Lake, Aliamanu, Foster Village, Hickam and Pearl Harbor. He was previously a television news reporter.
Editor’s note: Glenn Wakai isn’t the only one with a “Meeting Mitsuru Shimabukuro” story. Our own Hawai‘i Herald advertising and promotions manager, Grant “Sandaa” Murata, has an equally compelling story of adoption. Although he grew up knowing that he and his biologically unrelated sister were adopted at birth, the reason for his search for his birth mother is fascinating — and what he learned answered questions that had haunted him for decades. We’ll ask him to share his story with you in the near future.