KASHIWA, Japan » At a public bath in a Yokohama slum in the 1950s, a red-haired girl scrubs her skin with a pumice stone, hard, to try to get the white out.
Other kids sometimes taunt her. “American, American.” She yells back, “I’m Japanese!”
There are more hints that she is different. Once a year she’s taken to a grave in the cemetery for foreigners. Once she is made to listen to a record of people singing “Happy Birthday” in English. The reasons are as unknown to her as the Western-looking couple she sees in photos hidden in a brown leather suitcase in the closet.
She is told she was abandoned. Only much later would she learn that her family had been a casualty of anti-Asian immigration policy in the United States. Her American father got Congress to pass a special bill that would have allowed her to enter the U.S., yet she would go most of her life without knowing that.
Her life became headline fodder in two countries — Japan and Sweden — as a custody battle waged, yet she would be the one to sort out her own fractured identity. It took decades, and the last piece was put into place only this year.
“So many coincidences happened in my life,” she said in an interview at her house outside Tokyo, reflecting on her 67 years. “But altogether, you know, I managed to put the whole story, that now I’m settled, and I have peace of mind. Thank goodness that I don’t have to live with two people anymore.”
Those two people are Mary Ann Vaughn, the girl she was born as, and Marianne Wilson, the girl that fate made her.
THE MARY ANN YEARS
Texas-born James Vaughn arrived in Japan in early 1946, a 20-year-old civilian assigned to a U.S. military base in Yokohama. Photos show a handsome lad with a bit of a James Dean look.
He met 16-year-old Vivienne Wilson working in the PX to help support her family. It was an ill-fated romance. Overseas U.S. personnel needed permission from the military to get married, and Vaughn was denied because Wilson was half-Japanese. U.S. law at the time barred Japanese from becoming citizens or even immigrating to the country.
Vaughn and Wilson didn’t give up. They tied the knot at a Japanese shrine in May 1948. But U.S. military police harassed the couple, and Vaughn returned to the U.S. that August. Wilson gave birth to Mary Ann Vaughn in a Yokohama hospital on April 17, 1949.
James Vaughn wrote to Congress, which passed a law exempting Wilson from immigration restrictions so she and her daughter could enter the U.S. It was dated Aug. 5, 1950.
That very day Vivienne Wilson died of tuberculosis. Mary Ann was 16 months old.
Wilson’s family was struggling financially, and asked Mary Ann’s nanny to take care of the baby until her father returned to get her. He never did.
And so Mary Ann ended up trying to peel her whiteness off in a public bath. “I was wondering what kind of disease I had,” she said. She hoped she would wake up transformed, her red hair gone to black.
She became Mary Ann Kizawa, taking the surname of her nanny’s first husband. She called him “Papa.” They lived in a one-room shack in Yokohama, got water from a shared pump and cooked outside.
The young girl didn’t know she was American — she was taught to be terrified of Americans. She wasn’t sure who or what they were, but would jump into a covered wooden tea crate whenever they came to the neighborhood. They will make you into sausage and eat you, she was told.
Ultimately, an organization set up to help “GI babies,” orphans left behind by American soldiers, found her. In letters to the Swedish consul in Tokyo in 1955, the group reported that Mary Ann’s nanny wanted to adopt her, but questioned whether that was advisable, given her impoverished circumstances. Sweden decided it should find a home for her, and a custody battle ensued.
The media descended on the first-grader. Magazine photo spreads from 1956 show a smiling, pig-tailed girl at school or eating at home. Behind the sometimes impish smiles was a child who didn’t understand what was happening to her.
Her nanny, Fumi, took Mary Ann every Aug. 5 to Vivienne’s grave in a mosquito-infested cemetery, without telling her it was her mother. The child couldn’t read the English on the tombstone.
Fumi once took her to the beauty parlor where she worked, so she could use the record player. Mary Ann listened to a recording of “Happy Birthday” and “Mary had a Little Lamb” without realizing it was her father and his family in America singing.
The nanny did lay out what was happening after a court ruled in Sweden’s favor in 1958. “I’m going to tell you something very important,” she told her. “Sit here and just listen. You’re going to quit this school. From September you’re going to go to a new school on the bluff where all the A-B-C kids are living. And from now on, your name is going to be Marianne Wilson.”
THE MARIANNE YEARS
It was a name she hated. Marianne is the Swedish version of Mary Ann, and in her 9-year-old mind, it was the source of all her troubles.
With no English, she was sent back to second grade at the “A-B-C school” — the international school in Yokohama. It was a blow to her ego. She couldn’t stomach the strange food — ham sandwiches and tomato juice — and threw it away.
“I just couldn’t understand a single word the teacher was saying,” she said. “I couldn’t even write my own name.”
An excerpt from a recent email captures her confusion:
“On my first day, we took the bus to the bluff. To my big surprise came a little boy who looked like me accompanied by a Japanese woman. When I heard the boy addressing a Japanese lady ‘Mommy,’ my mind just spun with great joy. I had found the same species!”
Her joy was dashed when she discovered the father of a similar girl was a tall white man.
“Oh my goodness, I was totally confused,” she wrote. ” … I expected a little girl who looked like me to have a Japanese mommy and a Japanese daddy! My little head at that time had no idea about mixed-race, and just left me with the great grief that there is no planet for me to live in. I searched for Krypton, a planet which Superman came from, for there might be some aliens existing like me on that planet.”
Under a compromise with the Swedish Embassy, Marianne would live with a foreign host family during the week, and stay with her nanny, now remarried as Fumi Yamaguchi, on the weekends. A Swedish company moved them out of the slums and into a house in Tokyo with new wonders for Marianne, from a refrigerator to a vacuum cleaner.
She transferred to the American School in Japan, and rotated through about half a dozen families during her school years. Now, when she visited that gravestone, she could read “Vivienne Wilson” on the marker, and realized it was the same last name as hers. She peeked at the photos in the suitcase. A young man, a young woman. A little boy. How were they a part of her life?
After high school, she was sent to Sweden, speaking no Swedish. She worked for SAS, the Scandinavian airline, but returned to Japan in 1974, after five years.
On her deathbed in 1975, Fumi finally told her everything. James Vaughn was her father, and he hadn’t abandoned her, but had tried to find her. It was him on the record, singing to her. She gave her the photos, and told her, these are your parents.
Marianne was not ready to try to track down her father until the 1990s, after she got married and had a son. The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo gave her a list of agencies to try.
“Every time an envelope came from America, I thought, ‘Yay, they found him,’” she said. “Then I would start crying. It didn’t work.”
An acquaintance suggested the Japanese Red Cross. The answer came by phone in 2004: We found James Vaughn, but unfortunately he died 11 months ago. There is a short obituary. And you have a younger brother in America.
RECLAIMING MARY ANN
Marianne Wilson Kuroda was drinking her coffee and shaking, waiting in the kitchen for the phone to ring. It was Steve Vaughn, the son of the father she never got to meet.
At first she didn’t know what to say. “What was father’s favorite color?” she asked. Then the emotions overflowed.
“I thought, ‘Gosh, I wish I would have taken care of you,’” she said. “I missed him so much as a baby. I could have been big sister to him … changed his diaper, given him milk. I guess that’s what you call family.”
Three months later, she was flying to New Mexico. Vaughn, 56, is a doctor at a Veterans Administration clinic outside of Albuquerque.
“She got off the plane. I could not look her in the eyes,” he wrote in response to questions. “Her father’s eyes scrutinized me, stared at me.”
It’s not clear whether James Vaughn attempted to contact his daughter after the death of Vivienne Wilson in 1950, but his family kept an envelope on which his mother had written, “May be important some day.”
Inside were some photos and a note: “The baby in these pictures was named Mary Ann. The last time (I) heard about them was 1958. The mother had died, and baby or girl Mary Ann was adopted in Tokyo, Japan, by unknown parents.”
Steve Vaughn, whose mother had married James Vaughn in 1956, wasn’t told about his half-sister.
He and Marianne compared photos, and found they had similar ones of their father as a little boy. They visited the grave of their father, who had died on Feb. 3, 2003, at the age of 77.
“I had to give him respect, you know. But, um, hmm, it was like, you know, ‘Why did you die 11 months ago?’” Marianne said, her laughter mixed with pangs of regret. “You could have lived a little bit longer after all these years.”
The puzzle was coming together. An uncle remembered something about a law related to her story. Steve Vaughn wrote to the U.S. National Archives and found under Private Laws, Chapter 596, “An Act, for the relief of Vivienne Joy Wilson and minor daughter Mary Ann Vaughn.”
Marianne was stunned.
“I saw the name Mary Ann Vaughn, which I was called in my very early childhood, and was shocked that she really existed, and my father was truly an American,” she said.
And so was she — or at least should have been. She decided that she should make it official and claim her citizenship, in his honor.
It would take 12 years.
A U.S. Embassy official in Tokyo asked her why she wanted citizenship when she didn’t intend to move to the U.S. He gave her a long list of requirements.
“He even said it is almost impossible,” Marianne said. “He raised my anger to fight for anything to get justice.”
She got help, in a way, from her grandmother. Vivienne’s mother. She, amazingly, had gone through very much the same struggle.
‘A MATTER OF JUSTICE’
To get the bill passed, James Vaughn had written Nevada Sen. Pat McCarran letters pleading for help. Steve Vaughn obtained those letters through the McCarran archives.
A 1949 letter said that Vivienne Wilson’s mother, Helene, had divorced and gotten remarried to a man named John Bouiss and was living in Portland, Oregon. That was something she never knew.
Searching the internet in 2012, Marianne happened upon a 78-page paper on Helene Bouiss in the New York University Law Review. Half-Japanese and half-German, she had been denied entry on arrival in Seattle and detained because of her ethnicity. She only was admitted after Congress amended the War Brides Act to allow in spouses like her.
It boggled Marianne’s mind. She sought help from the author of the paper, professor Rose Cuison Villazor from the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of California, Davis.
“Her case is a consequence of this history of discrimination from immigration law and citizenship law that I thought really needed to be corrected,” Cuison Villazor said in a telephone interview. “There was … this awful history that I felt needed to be addressed as a matter of justice.”
Kevin Brosnahan, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs, said that consular officers are required to determine whether a person meets the legal requirements for citizenship that were in effect on her birthdate.
For Marianne, born in 1949, that meant she had to have established that Vaughn was her father by the age of 21. A later U.S. law allows a qualified person to take an oath to restore her citizenship, Brosnahan said.
Cuison Villazor, in a submission to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, argued that the 1949-era requirements are unconstitutional, but that either way, Marianne had met them.
The U.S. ultimately agreed. A photo posted this June on Facebook shows a smiling Marianne standing outside the embassy holding up the oath of allegiance she had just signed.
She has one more task before that mission feels complete. She wants to visit a cemetery in the west Texas city of Spur, population 1,300, where her paternal grandparents are buried.
“I want to show them my American passport and say, ‘Grandpa, Grandma. I’m home.’”