Tomo Gibson pinning the Wings of Gold on his son, Toshi
Sipping a vodka martini with his ex-pat buddies at the Tokyo American Club, Bill Gibson is keen to talk about his grandson — who had received the U.S. Navy’s prestigious Wings of Gold in Florida — and his Japanese son, Toshi, whose adoption set in motion a series of events that changed the course of their lives.
At 88 Gibson hasn’t slowed a beat. His chiseled face is softened by a shock of white hair, and his love of sailing and life in Hawaii is easily seen in his tanned face.
He first saw Toshi about 63 years ago at an orphanage in Japan’s port city of Kobe. Gibson smiles at the memory of the small, seven-year-old boy with the cute face and thick, black hair huddled shyly in the corner of the room. Toshi came right over when he motioned to him. “In the first few minutes I knew right away that he was going to be my son.”
Toshi now lives in New Jersey as a retired teacher, tennis pro and designer of Japanese gardens. He said in a phone interview that he never thought Gibson was going to adopt him at that first meeting because he had just returned from living with a potential adoptive family, but the adoption hadn’t worked out.
He says Gibson gave him opportunities in life that he would never have had as an orphan in Japan. Because of Gibson, he has skied the Alps, sailed a schooner in the Caribbean, and received a master of fine arts (MFA) degree from the Rhode Island School of Design.
“Dad gave me exposure to excellent progressive schools and world travel, but most of all he gave me his support. I’m not sure I returned the same amount of benefit to him, though.”
Not true. Searching for the right way to express what his son has given him, Gibson, who never married, says Toshi provided him with a whole family — two grandsons and a devoted red-haired daughter-in law.
“They are vibrant, funny and kind,” he says.
The only thing Toshi remembers about his first meeting with Gibson is that a huge, foreign man visiting the orphanage asked him about his favorite foods, and he remembers all the media hoopla surrounding Gibson’s visit.
“Then I forgot about it,” Toshi says.
However, a couple of weeks later Toshi was whisked away in a jeep by the six-foot American while cameras flashed and microphones were pushed in his face. It was big news that brought headlines such as “Love knows no boundaries” and “American repays Japanese kindness.” Gibson was quoted as saying “I wanted to contribute to making someone’s life better.”
He did. Toshi’s mother had died from tuberculosis and his father of heart problems when he was about three years old.
“I have many fond memories of my very early life, except when my mother died as I slept by her side. I believe she was only 32.”
Toshi always assumed he had been a happy-go-lucky kid until he read the staff notes from the orphanage when he returned to Japan years later. He had been described as depressive — understandable since he had lost both his parents. But his life changed after he went to live with the jovial American even though it was hardly a typical adoption.
After living in Kobe for six years, Gibson and Toshi eventually moved to London. The war was still fresh in people’s minds, and the British still regarded the Japanese as their enemies.
“For one thing,” he says, “besides our cultural differences, Dad was a 26-year-old young bachelor at the time and I was adopted late; then moving from one culture to another was taxing for a young boy’s psyche.”
“In school I was often bullied and got into fights,” Toshi says, with a flicker of sadness in his voice. “I don’t think Dad knew that aspect of my life because the teachers looked the other way when such incidents took place, so the report never went home and I certainly would never have told Dad about it.”
He was homesick for about two years until he learned the language and then started to make a few friends, although even then his friends’ parents were still not friendly to him.
Toshi stayed at home with the Gibson household’s housekeepers frequently because Gibson traveled a lot for his job with a shipping company. Over time, he became fully acclimated to English culture. He discovered that the British and Japanese aren’t that different in their outlook on life.
“I call it the island mentality, and I became quite fond of the country and developed deep relationships with several families … and to this day, my wife and I often return to Britain to visit them.”
“I was at home in Honolulu when I first heard the news,” Gibson says. “It gave me great pleasure and I was so proud of his accomplishment. I would have liked to have gone to Florida, but I don’t fly as well as I used to.”
“Don’t listen to him,” laughs his friend Don Huq. “He’s still energetic; he still takes cruises around the world and the occasional trip to Tokyo to see us.”
His other friends nod in agreement.
Gibson served in the U.S. Navy as a navigator during World War II, and it was Gibson who inspired Tomo to become an aviator. That’s why Tomo’s award is extra special for him and “dear to my heart,” he says.
In an email from California to Majirox, Tomo said his fondest memories were of warm summers visiting his grandfather in Hawaii. “I listened to his stories of the Navy, his adventures with the Merchant Marines and his love of the sea,” he wrote. During these summers, Tomo became involved in his grandfather’s yacht club and learned to sail.
“It made me realize that when I have grandchildren, and I tell them stories about my life, I don’t want to say that I sat behind a desk for most of it.”
Gibson certainly hasn’t spent his life behind a desk. He lives it fully and because of Toshi, he lives it in the warm embrace of a loving family. At the Tokyo American Club it was getting late and one of Gibson’s friends calls for a last round of drinks to toast Tomo’s future and Gibson’s next trip to Japan.