U.S. military families find that adopting children in Japan is rare, but not impossible
OKINAWA CITY, Okinawa — Many Americans looking to adopt rarely turn to Japan.
And those who do find the process challenging in a culture where adoption is frowned upon and many believe orphans should carry on their family names.
But for one American couple, finding and adopting their two youngest from Japan was worth the effort.
Tom and Shirley Smith often discussed adoption, but the timing never seemed right, said Tom, a retired Marine working at Camp Foster on Okinawa.
In a playroom, surrounded by toys and photos of their three birth children and two adopted children, the couple recalled their last military tour on Okinawa in 1999.
“We had our three boys and I couldn’t have any more children,” Shirley said. “But we really wanted a girl.”
Their youngest was 11 and they both were approaching 40. They felt the time was right.
Because they had fallen in love with the culture and people, the Smiths said they decided to try to adopt a Japanese child.
But first they had to run it by their sons: Andy, Ben and Caleb, now 22, 19 and 17, respectively.
The boys were excited, Tom recalled, adding fondly that Andy pointed out it wouldn’t affect him because he would be heading off to college.
So they submitted their paperwork.
Knowing that adoption was tough to do in Japan, the Smiths said they were prepared to adopt a special-needs child, more likely to be available for adoption.
Increasing the family
In 2001, they met 1-month-old Bethany, whose only need was a family.
The adoption affected Andy more then he imagined. He fell in love with Bethany, and “Bethany is all about Andy, so it’s definitely had a big impact on him,” Tom said.
When Bethany was 9 months old, they heard about 18-month- old Juda, who had Down syndrome.
Juda was the first-born son of a first-born son whose family wanted him off the family registry because of his condition, Tom said.
Had Juda been a second son, he said, the family probably wouldn’t have bothered and he would have been put in an orphanage instead of relinquished for adoption. But the family wanted the child off the their registry.
Because of the syndrome, Shirley said, “it would have been hard to even find a Japanese family to adopt him.”
But he became “our blessing,” Tom said.
With a cognitive level of a 2-year-old, Juda, 6, can get pretty stubborn sometimes, Shirley said.
“He’s funny, though, when he gets mad,” Tom said, describing how Juda dramatically crosses his arms and heaves a big sigh when he’s not getting his way.
“Children bring us joy,” Shirley said, “but we never thought [Juda] would make us laugh with him so much.”
With the older children’s help, caring for and loving Juda has been easy, the Smiths said. And now Bethany helps as well.
“I’m a good sister to my brother,” Bethany said. “I help him get what he wants.”
Japanese faces, American minds
Soon after completing Bethany’s adoption, but with Juda’s still pending, the family moved to North Carolina for Tom’s last duty station.
Adoption and immigration on Okinawa take about two years, but it’s a fairly straightforward process, the Smiths said.
Completing Juda’s adoption in North Carolina “was actually more of a challenge,” Shirley said. “They had never processed an adoption like that and so they had to blow the dust off some books and figure out how to do it.”
Eventually, the Smiths slogged through volumes of paperwork to complete both children’s adoptions and immigrations, Shirley said.
Now, having lived most of their young lives stateside, the Smiths’ adopted children “have Japanese faces and American minds,” she said.
Back in Japan
They wanted to return to Japan to introduce the children to their cultural heritage, Shirley said.
Bethany now attends a preschool off base where she learns Japanese. Juda attends Bob Hope Elementary School on Camp Foster for its special needs program and to develop his English skills, Shirley said.
People mostly accept their unique family, though they make some funny assumptions, she said. For instance, when Tom has the kids, people assume his wife is Japanese, but they don’t assume the reverse when she has them.
Or people think the children are Chinese because of the high foreign adoption rate in that country, she said.