LOS ANGELES — Kei LaFleur has a story behind the name she grew up with, and she said that story has given her much to be thankful for.
Born in the fall of 1954 to, she believes, a Japanese mother and American father, she was named Keiko and put in the care of the Elizabeth Saunders Home, an Episcopalian orphanage in Oiso, Kanagawa Prefecture, in Japan.
She was adopted six months later by the Wardens, an American military family stationed near Tokyo, renamed Elizabeth after the home, and given “Kei” from Keiko as a middle name — Elizabeth Kei Warden.
“I’m thinking there’s probably a lot of Elizabeths out there, named after the home,” LaFleur, who lives in San Antonio, Texas and goes by her middle name, said during an August interview.
The Elizabeth Saunders home was founded in 1948 by Miki Sawada, granddaughter of Yataro Iwasaki, the founder of the Mitsubishi business conglomerate.
Sawada established the home post-World War II after seeing biracial children and their Japanese mothers suffer from poverty and discrimination in Japan.
After U.S. servicemen returned home, many Japanese women were shunned by their families for tarnishing the family name or giving birth to children of the enemy that defeated Japan, according to a book written by Sawada.
The St. Stephen’s school was added to further shield children from discrimination.
Though Sawada never met Elizabeth Saunders, she named the home after the Englishwoman who worked for the Mitsui family of industrialists because money Saunders donated after her passing was used to start the home. About 500 from the home are thought to have been adopted by U.S. parents.
LaFleur said she grew up in a loving family of six living primarily in Oklahoma and Texas, and has no memories of the home or Japan, just old photos from her parents. But the connectivity of the Internet put her in touch with others who had also been at the home.
Midori Acker, 66, lives in Kerrville, Texas about an hour away from San Antonio. Acker spent about five years at the Elizabeth Saunders Home and went to school at St. Stephens from about fourth grade through middle school, but she wasn’t an orphan. Acker and LaFleur met on the Internet and met in person for the first time at Acker’s home in August.
Born to a Japanese mother and an African American father, Acker said her mother, Fumiko Fukuda, was a single parent teaching English to Japanese women in relationships with American men. She lived with her mother both before and after her time at the home.
“Single parent back in those days with a half American, especially half black child, maybe it was not prejudice or anything like that, but I think she thought it might be better if I had a formal, good education in a place where many of those kinds of children, all of them were like me,” Acker said of why her mother sent her to the Elizabeth Saunders Home.
“Someone wanted to adopt me and my mother just flatly refused,” she added, saying her mother would visit her once a month, as allowed by Sawada.
Acker left the home after middle school to move to the United States with her mother and stepfather, who was in the military and stationed in Brunswick, Maine.
Joni Honda, who was born in Fukuoka and spent 14 months at the Elizabeth Saunders Home, has also connected online with others adopted from the home. She attended a small Elizabeth Saunders Home get-together held in San Diego this past July.
Both LaFleur and Acker had planned to attend the reunion, but were ultimately unable to make it.
Honda, 54, was adopted by a Japanese American couple living in San Diego, but said she nonetheless had a difficult childhood.
“Personally, I don’t think my (adoptive) mother should have had children, she just wasn’t the nurturing kind,” Honda said. “She didn’t really know how to communicate with me, so I missed a lot of that. As I got older, it got worse because I became more my own person.”
Honda said she was adopted because her adoptive parents could not have children of their own.
She has tried finding out more about her birth mother, having spent some time in Japan, but all she’s discovered is that her mother’s last name was likely Asai.
“As a young child, I wanted to find out because I wanted to know who I was,” she said. “But as I grew older, it was like, it’s okay, I’m okay. If I find her, fine, but if not, that’s okay too.”
Both LaFleur and Acker also say they don’t feel any particular need to know more about the biological parents they never knew.
But LaFleur said when she looks back to where she came from, she carries with her an appreciation for the birth mother who gave her the gift, as she calls it, of a chance of a good life; the home that cared for her; and the family that took her in as their own.