My given name is Karen Lee Johnson. My married name is Karen Johnson Igo, but once, for a short time, it was Hiroko Tanaka.
I was born during a war-torn era as a mixed-race baby in 1954, Tokyo, but I am one of the lucky ones. THANKS to my birth mother—who, to this day, I have never met or learned her name--I am alive to tell my story.
My first home was at the Elizabeth Saunders Home orphanage founded by Miki Sawada. In looking back and knowing what I do now, I consider Miki my second mother. She invested everything, risked everything, to provide for us mixed-raced children-children who because of their mixed-blood, were shunned and deemed not worthy, and in fact, considered disposable.
I was at the Elizabeth Saunders Home (ESH) for about six months, so my only memories of Japan are seen in photographs, but I open my heart and give THANKS to Miki Sawada for all that she did, and for finding a special American military couple to adopt me.
And so, my third mother was an Army nurse from Philadelphia who was married to an Army Medical Corp Officer who fought in three wars over the course of his 21-year career. The Army brought them to Japan where I lived for one year before boarding the USS Mann with my adopted mom to America, destination Seattle.
Growing up in America was more than I could have wished for with my first stop Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio in the great state of Texas. Here is where I was blessed with a baby sister. We then moved to Maryland where I became a naturalized citizen.
During my Dad’s deployment, I looked forward to getting letters from him away at war. We then lived in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania until my Dad retired, and after, our family finally settled in Maryland.
My youthful years were rich with family and friends… going to the New York World’s Fair, summer on the Jersey shore, spirited sports, and a college education. My parents treated me equal to my sister who was their biological daughter which in hindsight was magical for me as I was once abandoned.
Not that I knew that while growing up. My adoptive parents never felt the need to tell me I was adopted, only that I was born in Japan. In fact, I grew up thinking my ancestors were Polish on my mother’s side of the family. THANKS to my adoptive father, Howard Johnson, and adoptive mother, Catherine (Humenuk) Johnson, for taking the third baton and raising me as their own.
Fast forward to 1982 when I left my family on the East Coast to start a new chapter in my life returning to San Antonio, Texas. Less than two years later, I moved to California and spent some time on the Central Coast near Vandenberg Air Force Base. Later, I met my Boston raised husband in Palm Springs and two East Coasters married in San Diego.
After our first son was born, I was at the local social security office and they insisted I ask my adopted mother about my birth rights. When I called my mother, she told me I was adopted and could not give me the details at the time. At age 36, I didn’t even know what to say or think. Of course, I wanted to know more, however, at the same time did not want to cause any hurtfulness to my aging mother. There was a reason they kept it a secret.
Before my mother passed in 1999, she handed me all my adoption papers which contained some answers to the puzzle. I was part of a larger picture in history, a product of American military occupation in Japan.
With the internet accelerating my search over the next few decades, many puzzle pieces have fallen into place, and I have watched my beautiful story unfold with excitement. I have been actively involved in the Temecula Sister City Association for ten years now and returned to Japan with a student exchange in 2009 with my youngest son. We spent time in Daisen, our sister city on the Sea of Japan in the Tottori Prefecture, Hiroshima, Kobe, Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara, however, we did not have an opportunity to visit Tokyo. So, my next great travel plan in 2020 is to visit ESH and Tokyo where my story began.
There’s a touching poem, “Legacy of an Adopted Child”, I would like to share by an unknown author. I feel lucky and loved beyond words for the life I was given and all the people that have touched my life for different reasons along the way. First and foremost, my birth mother and adoptive mother.
Legacy of an Adopted Child, author unknown
Once there were two women who never knew each other
One you do not remember, the other you call Mother.
Two different lives shaped to make your one.
One became your guiding star, the other became your sun.
The first one gave you life, the second taught you to live it.
The first gave you a need for love, the second was there to give it.
One gave you a nationality, the other gave you a name.
One gave you a talent, the other gave you an aim.
One gave you emotions, the other calmed your fears.
One saw your first sweet smile, the other dried your tears.
One sought for you a home that she could not provide, the other
prayed for a child and her hopes were not denied.
And now you ask me, through your tears,
The age-old question, unanswered through the years.
Heredity or environment, which are you the product of?
Neither my darling, neither,
Just two different kinds of love.