“No Rape, No Base, No Tears”

The US military presence around the world doesn’t just create death and destruction — in places like Okinawa, Japan, its bases foster an environment of sexual violence against women.

Protest banners hang on the perimeter fence of Camp Schwab, a United States military base on May 30, 2018 in Nago, Okinawa prefecture, Japan. Carl Court / Getty Images

The Mihama American Village shopping mall and theme park in Okinawa is off of Highway 58, across from Camp Lester (US Marine Corps) and midway between Kadena Air Base (US Air Force) and Camp Foster (Marines again). It’s twenty-six minutes by car from Torii Station (US Army) and thirty-five minutes from the White Beach Naval Facility (Marines again, plus support for the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet). The delights of the American Village are these: shopping at the American Depot, the chance to eat tacos and pizza, and most of all, going to the clubs, where young American Marines drink watery drinks and dance to American hip-hop, pushed up close to Okinawan women.

American Village is also half an hour by car from Camp Hansen, where, in 1995, three American servicemen kidnapped a twelve-year-old schoolgirl as she came out of a stationery store. They beat her, bound her hands and legs, and stored her in the car trunk while they drove her to the abandoned sugarcane fields, where they took turns raping her. When one of the men noticed her staring at them, he covered her eyes with duct tape. After being dumped on the road, bleeding and unconscious, the girl managed to crawl to help. Upon recovery, she took the extraordinary step of reporting the assault to the police. When the three servicemen — Marcus Gill, Rodrico Harp, and Kendrick Ledet — were caught, Gill explained that they hadn’t had any money for a sex worker. “Let’s go rape a girl,” he proposed. “It was just for fun.”

The case sparked a wave of anti-base activism in Okinawa that had been simmering for decades, including an anti-base rally that brought out more than half of the Okinawan population. Yet despite the efforts of women activists, governor Masahide Ōta began using the case to push his own agenda and prestige. Soon the rape had become an allegory to talk about Okinawa generally, and promises from Japanese and American lawmakers to close a Marine Corps station halted, while the governor quietly renewed the leases for the US bases on the island. Okinawan women were left where they had been before — civilians living their lives around the bases, military wives and girlfriends, workers and volunteers on the bases, hostesses and sex workers in the clubs, anti-base activists trying to make something change.

It’s these women’s stories that Akemi Johnson chronicles in her deeply researched and skillfully narrated account, Night in the American Village: Women in the Shadow of the US Military Bases in Okinawa.

At the end of World War II, the emerging American superpower spawned a global empire of permanent military bases, a massive complex of 730 to 867 permanent military installations in 153 countries around the world. Nowhere is the US military presence more intrusive than in Okinawa. An independent island kingdom before being colonized by Japan in 1879, Okinawa was under the US military’s direct purview until 1972, when it reverted to Japanese control. Today, 70 percent of the US military bases in Japan are clustered in Okinawa prefecture, and the US military controls one-fifth of the island’s land mass.

What gives Night in the American Village its power and voice is Johnson’s insistence on centering Okinawan women’s stories. Each chapter introduces us to someone new, among them: Arisa, an Okinawan woman married to an American who volunteers on base to help other war brides; Eve, a twenty-nine-year-old receptionist who likes to date black American serviceman; Daisy, a Filipina club hostess in Okinawa on an “entertainment” visa; Ashley, an Asian-American military wife married to a Marine; Chie, a vibrant anti-war activist who leads kayak brigades into Oura Bay to protest the construction of a new base; Miyo, the daughter of an African-American veteran and an Okinawan woman, whose claim to the island is never quite recognized; and Suzuyo, an anti-base activist advocating for women’s rights.

Johnson is a gifted interlocutor with a knack for stressing the ambivalences and the in-between feelings of the women she talks to, from young clubgoers who cautiously identify with the slur for women who date Americans (amejo) to the Okinawan families who use “rent” payments from the US military seizure of their land to fund college tuition. She is a deft writer, able to gracefully weave a robust amount of historical context into each chapter while making each woman’s story freshly understandable. Japanese American herself, Johnson is sympathetic to the conflicted loyalties of Okinawans who find both economic opportunity and cosmopolitan excitement through the bases, as much as she is to the anti-base activists who decry the environmental destruction, lack of democracy, and assault the bases foment.

Night in the American Village is not an anti-base polemic but an account of the “melding of cultures,” the gray areas outside of pro- and anti-base politics where ordinary women live their lives. The work, here, is to insist on the multiplicity of women’s experiences rather than define one overarching theme, to examine the knot rather than untangle it. In fact, Johnson is nearly as skeptical of forcing one narrative onto the American-Okinawan relationship as she is of the bases themselves. Okinawa, she warns us, is a place where “there is a war of stories.”

The most weaponized story is that of rape, and it is here that the politics of Johnson’s insistence on ambiguity and complexity are both most important and inescapably strained.

Night in the American Village is bookended by two chapters about the 2016 murder and attempted rape of twenty-year-old Okinawan woman Rina Shimabukuro by Kenneth Gadson, an ex-Marine working as a civilian contractor on Kadena Air Force Base. Gadson, a mentally ill man who had long harbored fantasies of kidnapping and raping women and who reportedly joined the Marines “in order to kill,” assaulted Shimabukuro when he saw her walk by his car one evening, put her unconscious or dead body into a suitcase, and drove her to the woods, where he stabbed the body and disposed of it. In the courtroom, he described his regret that he had not been able to rape her but found that the “fatigue and stress” of his fantasy “were not worth it.”

Anti-base and women’s rights activists seized on the case to mourn Shimabukuro’s death and reignite their call to demilitarize the island. Each major wave of anti-base protest in Okinawa is tied to a rape case because the symbolism seems so clear cut. The woman comes to stand for a pure and violated Okinawa, and the perpetrator for a vicious military presence — a dichotomy tailor-made for bumper-sticker politics. When anti-base protesters outside of Camp Schwab and Camp Foster hold signs that say, “Good neighbors don’t rape” and “Don’t rape Okinawa,” it’s this slippage that they mark.

While Johnson meticulously documents the history of military sexual violence in Okinawa, she is also critical of the rape story’s use as a protest tool. As she observes, this erases the women themselves who have been its victims:

When a US serviceman rapes a woman in Okinawa, Okinawa becomes the innocent girl — kidnapped, beaten, held down, and violated by a thug United States. Tokyo is the pimp who enabled the abuse, having let the thug in. Soon, no one is talking about the real victim or what happened; they’re using the rape as the special anti-base weapon that it is.

The problem, though, is that it was the American military, not anti-base activists, who first proposed sexual conquest as a metaphor for American military expansion. In 1868, US Navy commodore Robert W. Shufeldt described the Pacific as “the ocean bride of America.” The chief architect of the treaty opening Korea to Western trade, Shufeldt advised:

Let us as Americans — see to it that the “bridegroom cometh”. . It is on this ocean that the East & the West have thus come together, reaching the point where search for Empire ceases & human power attains its climax.

Cultural ideas of race, gender, and sexuality shaped military institutions and landscapes across Asia at the end of World War II. The defeated Japanese empire handed over its state-run institutions of prostitution — the “comfort women” system of military sexual slavery — to the US occupation government in Japan, cementing the idea that American men needed sexual servicing as a natural part of their service. Both the Japanese and South Korean governments eagerly cooperated with US military leaders at mid-century to develop camptowns outside US military bases where soldiers could be ensured a sexual “release,” now coded as a natural part of military masculinity.

As Asia came to be seen as an erotic playground for US soldiers, sex and dating shaded easily into sexual violence. One Japanese estimate recorded 330 sexual assaults per day during the US military occupation, and US military records indicate that gang rape was common among assaults reported in the Far East Command. While a full accounting of assault will never appear in official records due to the low rate of reporting and the military’s diffident record-keeping, it is perhaps enough to know that in the 1950s, it was common for US servicemen to refer to Rest and Recuperation leave as “Rape and Restitution.” By 1995, Marcus Gill could say, “It seemed like fun.”

Post–World War II Okinawa, Johnson recounts, was a landscape “of everyday horror, of a place where gang rapes were as common as sweet potatoes.”

April 7, 1946: A 26-year-old woman returning home after the potato-digging work is carried off in a GMC military truck to an air-raid shelter, where she is gang-raped by 6 GIs.

September 6, 1955: A U.S. soldier enters a house where a 32-year-old woman is sleeping, and he rapes her.

February 22, 1969: A 21-year-old hostess is murdered in Koza City and her nude body disposed of by a private second-class in an artillery regiment.

September 4, 1995: An elementary-school girl is abducted and raped by 3 U.S. military personnel.

These entries are taken from a book-length record compiled by the activist group Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence. It is, activists told Johnson, “an untold history of pain.”

Johnson’s concern isn’t to take a political stance as much as it is to stay in the gray area; her commitment is, above all, to the reality of the women she interviews who don’t see themselves as victims.

At its best, this commitment to the women themselves lets the “untold history of pain” come through in the book, as well as the conflicted joys of women like Miyo, trying to forge a new African American–Okinawan identity out of the world she has been bequeathed. At its worst, though, it risks equating the violent and unequal landscape of militarized Okinawa with what Johnson describes as “a zone of ambiguous mutuality” that everyone comes to as equals, a bland “space of creation” to forge “new identities, networks, spaces.” Yet these identities and networks — no matter how luminous — are born of a violent entanglement. As one anti-base protest sticker puts it simply: “No rape, no base, no tears.”

Despite this — or perhaps because of it — Johnson’s book is a rich portrait of, as she writes, “what life is like at the edges of American empire, in all of its darkness and glory.” It’s tempting to argue that there’s no kind of “glory” in the US military presence, but that would be a lazy move and would do this haunting account and the women in it a disservice.

Johnson’s after understanding here, not argument; but the space she creates for women’s stories to spread outside of accepted political positions is what we all need to understand before we can make arguments of our own. After all, to fight for night to fall permanently on the American Village is to want women to be able to tell their myriad stories, free of its dark and violent shadow.