WAY OFF BASE: The shameful history of military rape in Okinawa

WAY OFF BASE: The shameful history of military rape in Okinawa

by Rick Mercier

AS I STROLL DOWN KOKUSAI STREET IN DOWNTOWN Naha, Okinawa, there’s no escaping the fact that I am on an island dominated by the United States military. The abundance of military-surplus stores and souvenir shops selling camouflage clothing (including outfits for tots) calls obvious attention to the bases that lie a little further north, but the banality and commodification give me the feeling that up the road what I’ll find is a giant war theme park – perhaps some kind of joint venture between the Pentagon and Walt Disney.

©Rick Mercier: A mural outside a shop in Naha, Okinawa, targets women for military-surplus sexual violence.

As I continue walking up the street, however, I spy a crack in the commodity-spectacle. Outside a surplus shop, a wall mural depicts a startled, larger-than-life woman clutching a bath towel against her nude body. Beside her in big, bold letters is the store’s name: Surprise Attack. The connection between militarism and sexual violence could not have been articulated more clearly, and it is especially apt in light of the abduction and rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen in September 1995.

That crime was no isolated incident. Four months earlier, a 24-year-old woman was beaten to death with a hammer by a U.S. serviceman. In 1993, a soldier raped an Okinawan woman, then escaped while in the custody of U.S. military police. There have been at least 34 murders committed by U.S. military personnel since 1955, when six-year-old Yumiko Nagayama was abducted, raped, and murdered by a U.S. Air Force sergeant. Twenty-three of the victims have been Okinawan women or girls (another was a woman serving in the U.S. military).

A glance at the litany of crimes reveals a correlation between U.S. military action in Asia and violence directed against women in Okinawa. During the Vietnam War era, 17 women were murdered by military personnel who were on R and R leave, were training for combat, or were somehow already involved in the war effort, which in Okinawa included daily B-52 sorties originating from Kadena Air Force Base. Eleven of the victims worked serving soldiers as bar hostesses or sauna attendants – occupations that helped keep the GIs happy and thus maintained their willingness to kill in other Asian countries. It was in this way that the military’s violence in Southeast Asia – often initiated in Okinawa – boomeranged back to Japan’s remote island prefecture, where Okinawan women became the victims of deadly attack.

Suzuyo Takazato, a member of the Naha city assembly and a longtime women’s activist in Okinawa, has made it her lifework to educate people about militarism and violence against women and to organize concerned citizens around the issue. Speaking at a demonstration after the rape of the 12-year-old schoolgirl, she denounced the idea that all U.S. soldiers needed was a little more sensitivity training: “Education does not help because the military itself is a form of structural violence. A soldier may be a good son to his mother, or a good husband to his wife. However, once he is integrated into the military, he…is trained to inflict violence…. Teaching humanity in the military is a gross contradiction. The military is a place for teaching brutality.”

WOMEN’S ACTIVISTS IN OKINAWA ARGUE THAT ACTS of violence by U.S. military personnel against Okinawan women should be considered war crimes. They cite the Platform for Action adopted at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, which states: “Rape that takes place in a situation of armed conflict constitutes a war crime and under certain circumstances it constitutes a crime against humanity.” Okinawan women contend that similar consideration should be given to sexual violence that occurs in the context of a long-term military presence.

The rape of the schoolgirl “represents only one in a continuing series of innumerable assaults committed against girls and women that began the day the U.S. military forces landed on Okinawa fifty years ago,” assert Okinawan Women Act Against Military Violence, a group formed in fall 1995. They have appealed to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to conduct a human rights investigation in Okinawa. “There is a lack of recognition regarding …human rights violations committed against women and children in those places around the world where, as in Okinawa, there exists a foreign military presence,” they wrote to Dr. Radhika Coomaraswany, special rapporteur for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. In their request to the U.N., the group points out that during the postwar occupation, which lasted until 1972, Okinawans were deprived of the right to exercise jurisdiction over crimes committed by U.S. military personnel or dependents. The U.S. military occupation government that ruled Okinawa until its reversion to Japan also failed to keep accurate records of such crimes.

Takazato says the U.N. has still made no official response to the request. In the meantime, Okinawan Women Act Against Military Violence will conduct its own investigation, sending out surveys and seeking Okinawa residents’ accounts of human rights violations by U.S. military personnel dating back to the invasion of Okinawa by U.S. forces in the spring of 1945.

Sexual violence by military forces began in Okinawa when Japanese troops arrived during World War II. To serve the 100,000 soldiers deployed throughout the Okinawan islands, the Japanese military government set up 130 military brothels in houses, public buildings, barracks, storehouses, even caves. Between 400 and 500 Okinawan women and approximately 1,000 Korean women were compelled to become “comfort women,” or sexual slaves, for Japanese soldiers. One Okinawan war survivor recalls the plight of Korean comfort women once U.S. troops came ashore: “[There] were a large group of Korean women hiding together…. The Japanese soldiers had used these young women as prostitutes before the Americans landed. After the battle started, the soldiers drove the women away…with no food and no protection.”

Okinawans have
learned from
experience that
this unending chain
of crimes against
women and girls is
inseparable from the
institution of
the military.

A historian commissioned by Okinawa Prefecture estimates that more than 10,000 rapes occurred during 84 days of fighting. After the battle was over and U.S. forces had established control of Okinawa, community bells were rung whenever U.S. troops were spotted approaching villages, and young women were hidden from soldiers. In the case of comfort women who survived the battle, many performed the same services for the new occupation forces that they had for the Japanese.

Prostitution was legal in Okinawa during the U.S. occupation government, and the Yaejima Approved Prostitution Zone was established three months after the outbreak of the Korean War. A survey conducted in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, revealed that 7,400 women were involved in prostitution around the bases. This meant that one in every 40 to 50 Okinawan females between the ages of 10 and 60 was selling her body to earn a living. During this period, according to Takazato and other women who prepared workshop materials on militarism and sexual violence for the Beijing Conference, “income from women working in prostitution …exceeded income from production of the main agricultural crops of sugar cane and pineapple.”

Today, the strength of the yen has curtailed base-related prostitution in Okinawa, but the military still considers it an important and acceptable outlet for barracks-crazy soldiers. This was made apparent when, in the wake of the September 1995 rape of the schoolgirl, the commander of all U.S. military operations in the Pacific publicly lamented the judgment of the soldiers who were charged as suspects, reasoning that for the price of the rental car used to carry out the attack, “they could have had a girl.”

THE PEOPLE OF KlN TOWN, WHO ARE INVOLUNTARY hosts to more than 21,000 Marines, have a pretty good idea of the danger posed to Okinawan women and girls by U.S. military personnel. Kin Town is where the September 1995 rape occurred, and over the years several other highly publicized sexual assaults and murders have been reported in the small village. In 1985, a 40-year-old woman was abducted and raped there by two soldiers. Two junior high school students going for a swim at a Kin Town beach were stoned until they lost consciousness and then raped by a Marine in 1975. The rape of the junior high students had followed an incident the year before in which a 17-year-old woman and her uncle were ambushed by three soldiers who beat the uncle unconscious and gang-raped the woman. Between 1965 and 1971, four women from Kin Town were believed to have been murdered by U.S. servicemen, though there is record of only one conviction by U.S. military courts.

These incidents represent only a small portion of what Kin Town residents have had to endure. On top of all the unreported sexual assaults are the military-related accidents that have injured or killed citizens, and the environmental damage caused by live artillery drills in the area. One accident involved a 73-year-old woman who was crushed by a tank while combing a village beach for bullets. In another notorious incident, a 55-year-old woman was shot to death in Kin Town by a U.S. sergeant who testified that he had mistaken her for a wild boar. The defendant was acquitted by a military court.

The suffering forced upon residents of Kin Town and other Okinawans could not have been imposed on Japanese citizens who live on the mainland. The concentration of the bases in Okinawa must be viewed as a manifestation of the discrimination that Okinawans have faced from mainland Japan ever since Okinawa was annexed in the 19th century. Many Okinawans feel that this discrimination was responsible for the Imperial Army’s decision to use Okinawa as a buffer during the final months of World War II.

About 150,000 Okinawans (one fourth of the island’s population) died during the battle in Okinawa, which Okinawans call the “Typhoon of Steel.” After the battle, U.S. troops put survivors into detention camps and seized the best land in Okinawa, mostly in the central part of the island where the bulk of Okinawans lived. The U.S. military continued confiscating land until the mid-’50s.

In 1952, the first “all-island struggle” emerged to resist the escalating enclosure of land by the U.S. occupation government. During the ’60s and early ’70s, Okinawans protested against the Vietnam War and the storage of poison gas at Okinawa bases. Citizens also started a grassroots reversion movement, believing that this would lead to the removal of the bases. Today, despite more than four decades of resistance, 20 percent of the main island lies behind chain-link fences and barbed wire erected by the U.S. military.

The anti-base movement showed its strength in October 1995 with a demonstration of 85,000 people (nearly 7 percent of the prefecture’s population – equivalent to a 560,000-person march in New York City). The U.S. and Japanese governments, after years of ignoring Okinawans, finally took notice, but have sought to limit the terms of the public debate to a question of giving back some land to Okinawans and reducing irritants such as noise pollution. As a Japanese Defense Agency official told a Japanese newspaper, “At any cost, we want to avoid repetition of the past, when anti-base movement groups campaigned for removal of bases across the country.”

The April agreement between the U.S. and Japanese governments to consolidate the bases in Okinawa was played up as a good faith effort to wipe away some of what U.S. Ambassador Walter Mondale has called the U.S. military’s “footprints” in Okinawa. The media in the United States bought the U.S. and Japanese governments’ line. The Washington Post reported that the decision to close down the Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station “solves the most contentious issue between the United States and residents of Okinawa.”

Kin Town residents, however, might disagree with the Washington Post’s interpretation of the April accord, for what they learned (and what the Post did not report) was that one of the conditions for closing Futenma Air Station was the construction a new heliport somewhere else in Okinawa. Camp Hansen in Kin Town was named as a possible relocation site for the heliport, but strong local opposition caused officials in Tokyo and Washington to drop it from their list of options.

The prevailing view in Okinawa is that the April agreement is deeply flawed and that it may in fact lead to a greater entrenchment of the military presence in the prefecture. “If they build a new heliport, the bases will stay here,” says Etsuko Une, who works at a museum adjacent to Futenma Air Base. “Okinawa belongs to Okinawans, not to the U.S. military.”

WHILE OKINAWANS PERSIST IN THEIR FIGHT against the U.S. and Japanese governments, so do the crimes against women and girls by U.S. military personnel. In January 1996, a 14-year-old American girl was allegedly raped at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa by a 24-year-old airman. In another rape reported in March in Chatan Town, Okinawa, the assailant was identified as a foreign man. In mid-September, two soldiers were questioned in connection with the beating and robbery of a female bar manager in Ishikawa village, near Kin Town.

Recent crimes involving U.S. servicemen in places other than Okinawa also testify to the threat posed to women by the military. In September, a U.S. soldier stationed in Korea confessed to killing a Korean prostitute. In Japan’s Nagasaki Prefecture this summer, a Navy petty officer from the amphibious assault ship USS Belleau Wood reportedly molested a Japanese girl. The Belleau Wood, home-ported at the U.S. Navy base in the Nagasaki town of Sasebo, is the flagship of an amphibious squadron established in 1992 for deployment of Marines from Okinawa to “hot spots” around the globe.

Okinawans have learned from experience that this unending chain of crimes against women and girls is inseparable from the institution of the military. The mass destruction carried out by the military has always coexisted with and presupposed systematic gender violence. Indeed, as the actions of the Japanese and U.S. militaries in Okinawa have shown, exploitation and violence directed against women is acknowledged within the military as a key to reproducing the capacity of men to carry out mass violence. Okinawans are doing us a great service by attacking the U.S. military locally, and by making general critiques of the character of the military. We owe it to them to add our voices and our actions to their struggle, which ultimately is about a lot more than just what goes on in Okinawa.

RICK MERCIER is a freelance writer who lives and teaches in Japan. A frequent visitor to Okinawa, he covers anti-base activism.