CHAPEL HILL — Wendy Bryant Gow left Japan when she was adopted more than 50 years ago.
Soon, her native country will learn what became of her.
The 55-year-old Chapel Hill resident and entrepreneur always wondered about her family. She graduated in 1980 from UNC-Chapel Hill and moved to New York to start a fashion career. She got married, had two girls, Winston, 23, and Lily, 12, and eventually divorced.
After living in Atlanta for 20 years, she moved back to Chapel Hill in 2002 and started her personal and home style consulting business, Lily Winston. For years, she had searched for her family but was met with resistance. Her American mother was open about the adoption, but there wasn’t a lot of information, she said.
In 2007, a letter from International Social Service, the nonprofit group that arranged her adoption, began to unravel the mystery.
“Immediately I booked a flight,” she said. “I had all these friends say, ‘You need to back off a little bit, slow down.’ I never knew my family, and I wanted to find out everything I could.”
On Friday, Bryant Gow hosted a crew from Japan’s Fuji Television Network News that is doing a story about what happens to Japanese children adopted by foreign families.
Japan is considering whether to tighten its already strict laws on international adoptions. The U.S. State Department reports fewer than 500 children were adopted from Japan in the last 15 years.
Bryant Gow said her story is a great opportunity to put a positive spin on foreign adoptions.
Billie and Lee Bryant were living in Japan, where Lee Bryant was stationed with the Air Force, when they adopted 6-week-old Arisa in 1958. They renamed her Wendy and raised her and a brother, Stan, also adopted from Japan.
Bryant Gow’s birth mother, Kazuko Ikuta, met her father, John, in a nightclub, and they dated for two years. The 45-year-old American businessman returned to the United States, where he had a family of his own. He never knew about the birth, she said.
It was considered a disgrace for an unmarried woman in Japan to raise a mixed-race child, and the family forced Ikuta to give up her baby. She became depressed and estranged from her family.
Locals knew her as “the lady with the doll,” because she always carried a blond-haired doll as a replacement for her baby, Bryant Gow said.
Even if it was a hard decision, Bryant Gow said, her mother spared her the stigma of growing up in Japan the biracial child of a single mother.
“It would have been nice to have given her that peace of mind that it was the right choice and the right decision,” she said.
Bryant Gow and her daughters traveled to Japan to meet her relatives in 2007.
“They were so lovely and just so welcoming,” she said. “They immediately just embraced us and got teary eyed.”
They told her that her maternal grandfather was killed in World War II. Her grandmother stayed a single mother and sewed clothes to support her seven children.
“It was wonderful,” Bryant Gow said.
International adoption was more common in Japan and Europe after World War II. American servicemen led the trend, often adopting mixed-race children stigmatized in their home countries.
Now, the tide has turned against such adoptions. Japan and Russia, for example, are the only developed countries yet to sign onto the Hague Convention on International Adoption, which set global standards in 1993.
Chiyoko Nakamoto, a Fuji TV bureau chief, said the chief concern is for the children’s welfare, especially in light of the growth in child trafficking worldwide. The Japanese government wants to be sure good families adopt them, she said.
In 1998, Japan did create its own Western-style adoption system for prospective foreign parents. Those “special adoptions” are limited to children younger than 6 whose biological parents can’t care for them, are considered “inappropriate” parents or when it’s in the child’s best interests.
Jan Bardsley, chairwoman of UNC’s Asian Studies Department, said domestic adoptions to preserve family ties or promote stability are more traditional in Japan. Even then, it’s not something they talk about, she said.
Bryant Gow never got a chance to talk about her adoption with the woman who bore her.
A 2007 email from a cousin said Ikuta had died in 2001.
She was buried with the blond-haired doll, which she had named Lily, the same name as one of the granddaughters she never met.