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16 October 2014

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By Mariko Francombe
September 2004,
A digital story from Who Do You Think You Are?

"I always thought of myself as half English and half Japanese. 'My mum is Japanese and my dad English'. That's what I would say in introductions when explaining my unusual name, Mariko. Simple enough. But it is not so cut and dried when you live with it.

Although I was born and brought up in England, I have long been driven to understand my Japanese connection.

Mum would tell us stories of her childhood, a seemingly idyllic family life among the Japanese migrant workers who had settled in Hawaii; how her mother insisted they fled back to Japan to survive the Second World War; and how she met my father, John Francombe, in the church choir at Cassell's army camp in Kure. I dreamed of seeing our Japanese family and the places so significant in her life story.

In 1977 that's exactly what I did. Mum came too on her first visit for over 20 years. We stayed with Aunt Yoshiko in Hiroshima. I had crazy conversations in mime with my cousin Yasuharu about Manchester United and he taught me to play Japanese flowercards, Hanafuda. It was like having a new brother. Uncle Itaka and grandma came from Shinjo to visit. I really felt part of our Japanese family- saying goodbye to them all was so sad.

We went to Japan again in 1993 and had arranged to visit grandma in Shinjo but were told she was too ill to see us. What could we do? The next day we made a bizarre trip, stopping short at the invisible barrier outside their house and not going in.

The last time I went to Japan was in 2001. We had met Yasuharu and his family for a morning of sightseeing and time had run out. After goodbye handshakes and thankyous his last gesture was to bow deeply to us. The formality and finality of this respectful act hit me hard. I just wanted to give him a great big hug but the invisible barrier came down again. My hopes of building a bridge to our Japanese family were dashed.

This experience has brought me down to earth and made me value things as they are. I accept I am not part of the family in Japan and belong with my own here in England. And I don't have to think of myself as half English and half Japanese, but simply myself - the 'rounded, or complete child', which is what Mariko means in Japanese.

Mariko Francombe

Please tell us a little about yourself.
I live with my family in a cottage in the countryside, not far from London. Whilst at home with my two daughters, I have been studying for a Fine Art degree, making a complete change from my former career in analytical science and food research. As the girls grow up I intend to develop a new career using my artistic skills.

What's your story about?
It is about my dream to relate to my family in Japan, and the difficulties that long distance, lack of communication and cultural differences create.
There had to be a connection with the family history theme for the workshop. When it came to writing the story the focus was on why it was so important to me to relate to my Japanese side of the family. It became very personal.

What did you find the most rewarding aspect about the workshop?
It was beneficial that the workshop brought out how I felt about being cut off from my Japanese family. The friendships quickly developed with others on the workshop were special and the way the BBC team nurtured us through the process of creating the films was a joy to experience. The week will be a treasured memory.

How has this workshop affected the way you look upon your family history?
It makes you think about the individual family members and what they were like as people - what their own stories would have been if they could have told them in this way."

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