Mothers' helper ... when GIs behave badly

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When Masae Uechi had her son, she named him Anthony - and Ruri for the times when he'd need a Japanese name.

Her boyfriend, a US serviceman at nearby Kadena Airbase, acknowledged the child as his, and went with Ms. Uechi to register his birth.

But the soldier didn't marry her as she had hoped. Money and visits became infrequent. Then, he skipped town for a new assignment in Oklahoma, married someone else, and, Uechi says, stopped paying any child support.

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That's when Uechi, working nights at a bar to support Anthony, now 2-1/2, and two children from a previous marriage, went to see Annette Eddie-Callagain.

Ms. Eddie-Callagain, the first and only foreign lawyer in this southernmost prefecture of Japan, has become something of a guru to the jilted.

They are Japanese wives and girlfriends who, after falling for an American man in uniform, later found them-selves abandoned or divorced without any financial support for their children.

They come to Eddie-Callagain because she's the only lawyer qualified and willing to chase down deadbeat dads from Okinawa to Oklahoma. She does it pro bono. And, in a sense, she's been there.

"I read in the local paper that she used to be a military lawyer and saw too much of this problem, and that's why she wants to help," says Uechi, recalling how she found her way to the E-C Law Office along a homely stretch of commercial highway in Ginowan City, Okinawa.

US troop presence

Currently juggling about 50 such cases, Eddie-Callagain has zeroed in on a problem with wider implications. As discontent swells higher against the 28,000 US troops based here - the largest concentration of the 48,000 stationed in Japan - how those soldiers behave on Japanese soil has become a touchy issue.

During the G-8 summit held here last month, tens of thousands of activists protested against the US military presence here, and President Clinton responded with a promise to "reduce our footprint" on this island. Okinawa's governor will present the Japanese government and the American Embassy in Tokyo with a proposal that would make it easier to prosecute US military personnel for any crime under Japanese law, and would encourage the military to garnish a serviceman's wages if he fails to make child-support payments.

The 11-point plan, agreed on two weeks ago by the Okinawa prefectural government, proposes to revise the US-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which allows US military personnel here to be prosecuted in Japan only for very serious crimes, such as murder and rape.

That leaves a wide range of misdeeds uncovered - as Eddie-Callagain would know. From 1990 to 1993, she was a military lawyer at the Kadena Air Force Base here, dealing with the regular run of court-martials and criminal cases. Seeing justice done, however, seemed out of reach when it came to local women who were left to raise the children of US servicemen without any child support.

"People would pull me aside and say: 'The baby needs milk and the lights are off, and we can't pay any of the bills. Please help,' " says Eddie-Callagain, whose pink suit and neat hair swept into a bun seem to demand alertness. With huge, light-brown eyes that grow a bit bigger each time she makes a point for emphasis, she has an animated demeanor that stands out from the crowd in Japan, a nation that reveres quiet and controlled speech.

But then, there isn't much about Eddie-Callagain that doesn't set her apart.

She is an African-American living in a country that has demonstrated its share of racist tendencies; she is a lawyer in a prefecture that only has three other women in its bar association. She is representing women who made the socially frowned-upon decision to become involved with foreign men and raise "Amerasian" children, who may not find acceptance as Japanese. And she is making life difficult for American servicemen who might otherwise move on without any strings attached.

In her days on the inside, she found she could do little but call a troop's commander and complain.

"When you see a woman coming in with a baby pulling at her dress saying she can't feed her kids, do you send her right out the door? I said, this is terrible, something's got to be done," Eddie-Callagain recalls.

Eddie-Callagain quit the military in 1993 and returned to the US. She came back to Okinawa in 1995 to set up a private law practice to deal with what she knew were loads of non-criminal cases here involving military personnel - still her bread and butter - that were in need of representation.

It took her almost two years of research to find that the problem existed elsewhere - in places like nearby South Korea, home to 37,000 US troops - and that few others were trying to address it. Then she got in contact with the Office of Child Support Enforcement in Washington, which told her that once she tracked down the absentee father - who in most cases had already left the military - she could try to get individual states to take up the case.

One of her first cases was with a father who left Okinawa for Illinois. When she got a hold of the father of a three-year-old and a six-year-old, he laughed. "He said, 'Oh yeah, right, you're in Japan and I'm in the US. You can't take me to court!" recalls Eddie-Callagain, mimicking the man's arrogance. "At that point," she says, "I became furious."

She convinced the district attorney's office in Illinois to prosecute the case. The man was taken to court in December 1998. "In April," she says, "the checks started coming."

Stateside cooperation

That was only the beginning. It has been a messy, ongoing process of trying to get individual district attorneys in various states to cooperate with her. She often depends on her own resources - such as a friend back in the US who is a private investigator - to track down the absentee fathers.

And most problematic, she says, is that there is no agreement between Japan and the US covering such matters, because Japan has resisted negotiating one.

"The US has been begging Japan to enter into an agreement, and Japan is reluctant to open up this country to child-support enforcement," she says, noting that Japan doesn't tend to crack down on its own deadbeat parents.

Without such an agreement, she says, the proposal from the Okinawan government is well-meaning but "kind of pathetic," because most of the men in question are no longer in the military - so garnishing their wages would rarely be an option.

"They're trying to put a band-aid on it and make it sound like it's a military problem, but it's really a social problem, and the two governments have to do something about it," she says.

For Eddie-Callagain, the struggle of mothers like Uechi to raise children without a father - and in a society which may frown on them because of their mixed racial background - is familiar ground. Born in the segregated deep South, she grew up in New Iberia, La., mostly on a sugar-cane plantation. There, her mother scraped by to raise 10 children without any child support from their father.

Sometimes, to give the children something to do during the summer months, she'd send them to the local courthouse to watch proceedings. There, water fountains were segregated, marked "white" and "colored," and justice also seemed to have different standards for different people.

From teacher to attorney

"When my mother would send us to the courthouse to watch the trials going on there, I noticed that everyone in the courtroom was white, and the only people of color were the people who were being tried, convicted, and sent to prison," she recalls. "So, because of what I saw, I grew up thinking that blacks could not be lawyers."

Instead, she settled for a career in teaching. After a few years, the assistant principal at the school where she taught subjects like typing and shorthand in Omaha, Neb., encouraged her to pursue her dreams of becoming a lawyer.

The unusual step of coming back to Japan to set up a law practice was initially met with encouragement from the other lawyers in town. "Now that I'm here," she says, "I'm not so sure."

Mitsunobu Matsunaga, the head of the foreign law committee at the Okinawa Bar Association, says that Eddie-Callagain's reputation here is fine, but declined to give a more complimentary review than that. "She is carrying out her duties as a lawyer. I haven't heard that she's crooked or has ethical problems," he says.

To be sure, the challenges of building a career here as a foreigner are formidable. Many of her clients are Americans from the bases, and due to the presence of the US troops, the level of English tends to be higher here than elsewhere in Japan.

But making progress in the legal community without fluent Japanese is difficult. As such, Eddie-Callagain is signed up for a year-long course in Japanese for 3-1/2 hours each morning. That has her up at 4 a.m. so she can work from 5 to 8 o' clock each morning before class.

"It's only for a year," she says. "After that, I can have a life."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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