Okinawa, the largest island in a subtropical archipelago south of Japan known as the Ryukyus, is seventy miles long and seven miles wide. At its northern tip is Cape Hedo, where the Pacific Ocean and the East China Sea converge. From the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, the Ryukyu Kingdom was at the center of maritime trade networks in East and Southeast Asia. Once a Chinese tributary, the kingdom became a vassal state of Japan in 1609. In 1879, Japan deposed Okinawa’s monarchy and formally annexed the islands.
If Americans have heard of Okinawa, they probably associate it with one of World War II’s bloodiest battles, in which 12,500 American service members and a quarter to a third of the local population—estimates range from 40,000 to 150,000—died. The United States maintained control over the island for decades after the war. Through the 1950s, it seized Okinawans’ land in order to construct sprawling military bases, displacing thousands of residents. “As long as communism is a threat, [the United States] will hold Okinawa,” Vice President Richard Nixon announced during a visit in 1953.
In some sense, that remains true. Although ownership of the island reverted to Japan in 1972, the bases remained. Today, as tensions between China and other countries rise over territory in the South China Sea, 70 percent of all land occupied by American bases in Japan is in Okinawa, adding to its population of 1.4 million some 50,000 military personnel, civilian contractors, and their families. The impact of the US in Okinawa is profound and yet, like much about the American military’s operations abroad, not often discussed by Americans. When it is, the relationship between soldiers and civilians tends to be crudely drawn, with the Okinawans portrayed as either recipients of a superpower’s largesse or victims of its greed.
Okinawa’s few dozen American outposts are crucial to the US “empire of bases,” made up of at least seven hundred military installations around the world. The funding and purpose of these bases are frequently misunderstood; many Americans are unaware, for instance, that countries such as Germany, Japan, and South Korea—which were occupied by the US after World War II and in which the bases are concentrated—pay to host them. The Department of Defense estimates the annual cost of maintaining a US presence in Japan at $5.7 billion. Of this, Japan’s current share is about $1.7 billion. According to a 2016 study by the RAND corporation, when new construction was needed on bases a few years ago, Japan and South Korea collectively paid $30 billion of the $37 billion in costs. (Tokyo even paid $3 billion for updating facilities in Guam, a US territory.)
As Akemi Johnson writes in Night in the American Village, Japan’s so-called sympathy payments act as a financial incentive to keep thousands of members of the US Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps in Okinawa. Johnson, a fourth-generation Japanese-American, focuses on how women in Okinawa interact with American service members. She is interested not only in how American bases abroad affect local communities, but also how these satellite cities reveal truths about American culture. Spending time in Okinawa as a college student, Johnson writes, she “glimpsed an America I hadn’t seen before.” She doesn’t devote a lot of time to considering why the American military presence in Okinawa is ongoing, and yet the question—surprisingly difficult to answer—lingers.
After World War II and throughout the cold war, the US bases were intended to maintain American primacy. The goal, according to the international relations scholar Christopher Layne, was “to foreclose the possibility that [other states] would re-nationalize their security policies,” and thus to “strip them of the capacity to take unilateral, national action.” The number of troops stationed abroad has declined since 1990, but maintaining overseas bases remains a distinctly American practice.
In 2013 a RAND paper commissioned by the Department of Defense looked at the strategic justifications for a continued American presence abroad and concluded that there were primarily three: deterrence of enemies, assurance to allies, and responsiveness to unexpected events.
On the matter of deterrence, there is a growing consensus on both the left and the right that the value of overseas bases to American security is exaggerated. As for contingency responsiveness, the RAND paper conceded that in the event of conflict of a “substantial size,” the response by the US military, largely due to technological advances in military capability and communications, “will come primarily from forces deployed from bases in the United States.” What’s left is assurance: a “physical symbol of US commitment to the security of a region,” as RAND puts it, and “an important factor in building and sustaining alliance relationships.” But what do the Japanese make of this physical symbol of commitment?
A survey of fourteen countries with a history of large US military deployments published in May 2020 in the American Political Science Review found that residents of Japan were least enthusiastic about the US military presence. (Just 7 percent of Japanese respondents felt “very favorable”—compared with 37 percent among those in the Philippines, the highest favorable response among the fourteen countries—while 27 percent felt unfavorable, second only to Turkey.) What complicates this assessment is that residents of Okinawa, which hosts the most US troops of any part of Japan, continue to feel separate from the mainland in many ways.
In Okinawa: The History of an Island People (1958), the former diplomat and scholar George Kerr writes that after the islands’ annexation,
the government asserted that Okinawa Prefecture was an integral part of the Japanese empire, but to unsophisticated Japanese eyes the…ways and speech of the Okinawans set them apart as rustic, second-class cousins within the Japanese nation-family.
The Japanese enforced a policy of aggressive assimilation on the island. Schoolchildren were punished for speaking their own language and were forced to learn Japanese as part of a “standardization” program. (The dialects of mainland Japan and the Ryukyus are related but mutually unintelligible.) Okinawa also had its own spiritual traditions, which mainland administrators saw as a threat. The influence of healers and local priestesses was suppressed, and Okinawan dance-dramas thought to contain material “injurious to public morals” were censored.
During World War II Okinawa was transformed into a battlefield. The aim for the Japanese was not to win but to wear the Americans down before they could reach the mainland. Okinawan men were used as cannon fodder; women and children were encouraged to commit mass suicide instead of surrendering. (The Japanese government is reluctant to acknowledge wartime atrocities, including those committed against its own people.) Okinawa is still the poorest of Japan’s prefectures, and “I am Okinawan first, then Japanese” is a common saying. There is also a geographic reason for Okinawans’ divided loyalties: the island is about equidistant from many East Asian capitals: a two-hour flight from Tokyo, but a similar distance from Taipei, Seoul, and Shanghai. Hong Kong is not much farther away. Even its food—gelatinous soups, stewed greens, a preponderance of pork, not much seafood—is closer to some Chinese traditions than to Japanese ones.
After the war, as the rest of Japan suffered through a period of extreme deprivation and poverty, the Okinawan economy, previously almost entirely agrarian, expanded in response to the influx of thousands of GIs. Nowadays, however, the US military accounts for only about 5 percent of the economy. Thousands of Americans live most of their lives on bases resembling mini-cities, complete with schools, supermarkets, and clinics. Tourism, especially from China and South Korea, has become Okinawa’s biggest business and has made it the fastest-growing of Japan’s prefectures. Amid the proliferating five-star hotels and golf courses, and against a backdrop of wild subtropical jungle, the American contribution to the economy is not especially attractive: judging by the businesses clustered around the gates of the bases, much of it comes from tattoo parlors, strip clubs, and dive bars. (Similar establishments can be found around bases within the US, but with the addition of gun shops. American troops in Okinawa are not permitted to bring personal guns to Japan, and military-issued weapons are stored in strictly regulated on-base armories.)
Johnson spends time with Okinawa’s small but fervent band of activists devoted to the cause of US demilitarization. Okinawans, opinion polls show, by and large support the Japanese alliance with the US, but a 2019 referendum revealed that three quarters of them opposed construction of a new marine base. Johnson points to the ascent of Yasuhiro “Denny” Tamaki as the most concrete evidence of Okinawans’ feelings about the US military presence. When he won the Okinawan gubernatorial election in 2018, Tamaki’s platform called for a sharp reduction in American troops. Most notably, he didn’t want Futenma, a large marine base, relocated from central Okinawa to a larger zone in the pristine north. This put him at odds with the national ruling party, the Liberal Democrats, which favors a cozy relationship with the US and was willing to move the base. Local activists pursue their cause through sit-ins, protests outside the gates of bases, and David and Goliath–style legal battles against the Department of Defense.
Information on environmental damage by the military is hard to come by, but the reporter Jon Mitchell, the newspaper Stars and Stripes, and others have documented the contamination of the Okinawan water supply, in part from toxic firefighting foam used by the military from the 1970s through the 1990s. (There has been no official inquiry into the effects of polluted water on the health of either Okinawans or US military personnel.) Military documents reveal that hundreds of accidents have leaked contaminants like jet fuel, antifreeze, diesel, and raw sewage into the ground, and barrels of chemicals have been unearthed by Japanese builders after land has been returned. Bases take up prime waterfront, which was covered with oversized ferns, twisting trees, and other prehistoric-looking lush greenery, but is now bordered by barbed wire and blanketed in obsessively mown grass.
The deep coral reef that surrounds the island once teemed with life, including the endangered Okinawan dugong, a manatee-like marine mammal with a tail resembling a dolphin’s. That biodiversity is now threatened by military activity, which has also affected indigenous ways of life, such as sustainable fishing. In one especially poignant passage, Johnson spends time with protesters on kayaks who are determined through their presence on the water to stop the building of a base that would damage the coral reef.
Night in the American Village argues that it is Okinawan women who have been most affected by the decades-long presence of the American military. One dismal fact hardly changed from World War II to the present day is the sexual violence that American soldiers have inflicted on women. Every few years there’s an especially gruesome crime that upsets the delicate balance of American–Okinawan relations. Johnson frames her book with the murder in 2016 of Rina Shimabukuro, a twenty-year-old woman who lived near the Kadena Air Base and took a sunset walk in her neighborhood every evening. Shimabukuro would have had every reason to feel safe on her walk: in Okinawa, as in the rest of Japan, violent crime rates are among the lowest in the world, and few people bother to lock their house or car.
But one night Shimabukuro didn’t come home, and a text from her boyfriend went unanswered. Her body was found three weeks later. Police surveyed security footage of the area and questioned the driver of a red SUV, Kenneth Franklin Gadson, who later confessed that he had seen Shimabukuro walking, pulled over, raped and killed her, then left her body in the woods.
Gadson, a thirty-two-year-old ex-marine, had a story not unlike that of many troops who fulfill a tour of duty in Okinawa and then find themselves pulled back. He was from New York City and raised initially by a single mother. He spent his teenage years moving between foster families before joining the marines in 2007 and coming to Okinawa to work in a mail room. After seven years of service and an honorable discharge, Gadson returned to Okinawa and took a job as a contractor installing cable TV boxes in the suburbs on the base. He planned never to return to the US, and married an Okinawan woman. Eager to renounce his American family, he even took her last name: Shinzato. The couple moved in with her parents in a seaside town close to Shimabukuro’s and had a baby.
Gadson was found guilty of murder and rape and sentenced to hard labor for life in an Okinawan prison; an appeal in 2018, which depended on whether he had confessed while he was under the influence of sleeping pills following two suicide attempts, was denied. His conviction had an immediate and wide-reaching effect. Protesters outside the air force base chanted “We will never forgive you,” and “US bases should get out.” Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe brought up the case in talks with President Obama and, in a rare break from his support for the US military, publicly described himself as “outraged.”
Acts of sexual violence by Americans toward Okinawan women are central to the arguments of groups fighting to remove the bases. The leader of one such group shared with Johnson a document listing all cases of US military violence against local women since the end of World War II. It details “at least a few hundred crimes, many involving multiple victims and/or multiple GI assailants.” A rape, Johnson writes, is “a metaphor we understand right away, without explanation,” but she also goes on to suggest the limitations of the metaphor:
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.
Johnson instead seeks complexity, pointing out that for many Okinawan women, shutting the bases would mean losing their jobs there—working at a Pizza Hut or Subway, running the commissary, performing clerical work—and with those jobs, a sense of purpose. (This is particularly important in a population that has been made to feel doubly apart from, or inferior to, mainstream Japanese culture, as both Okinawans and as women.) Johnson is surprised to discover that an English-language class on Futenma popular with locals is not the invention of US military community-relations specialists but of an Okinawan woman named Kiki. “I was always uncomfortable working at a Japanese place,” Kiki tells Johnson. “The woman is under the man, always, in Japanese society. Still.” This is why, she says, she prefers an “American-style” workplace, where she isn’t controlled as much, and where no one expects her to make tea for her male colleagues.
Women have been finding work on bases since the end of World War II. “In contrast to the still-ravaged, destitute off-base realm,” Johnson writes, American military bases “boasted plentiful provisions and shining domestic spaces.” (Women on the bases also didn’t have to contend with male egos struggling with military defeat. As one Okinawan man who emigrated to South America told The New York Times in 1969, “I just didn’t like being bossed around by young GIs.”) There were relatively few employment options off-base then, especially for women; today, in Johnson’s words, “women perhaps still have more to gain [from bases] due to the heightened sexism often found in local workplaces.” Despite having the fastest-aging population in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Japan has been slow to accommodate women in the workplace. Its gender wage gap of 24.5 percent is twice the OECD average. In Okinawa, where the ancient belief of the Ryukyuan people in onarigami held that spiritual power belonged to women, and where centuries of exposure to foreigners and their belief systems have resulted in less fealty to conservative Japanese codes of conduct, women like Kiki tell Johnson they feel freer. They like that the wage gap is less pronounced than it is elsewhere in Japan. (Okinawa is progressive in other ways, too: for a time Naha, the island’s capital, was the only Japanese city that officially recognized same-sex relationships.)
Johnson quotes a recent news story from the Japanese broadcaster NHK that concluded, “Without a doubt, the women of Okinawa have suffered most at the hands of the US military. But women also know the positive side of American culture more than anyone else in Japan.” Curiously, Johnson’s exploration of that “positive side” is limited mostly to the way Okinawan women interact with American men. We are told in the first chapter that a woman who likes Americans is known in Okinawan as an amejo; Makoto Arakaki, a linguistic scholar, explains that the term “literally means a woman who favours an American man to whet her sexual appetite. (A ‘sex hungry military-man-eating-machine,’ is how one twenty-two-year-old local woman put it.)”
No one would ever call herself an amejo, but Johnson meets many women whom others might describe that way. Eve, a twenty-nine-year-old receptionist who lives with her parents on the northern part of the island and who is only interested in dating African-American men, takes Johnson to a Naha hip-hop club popular with servicemembers. As Eve dances to Jermaine Dupri’s “Welcome to Atlanta,” Johnson notes her deep tan and striking confidence, and how her entire look and individualistic demeanor stand in opposition to “the stereotypical Japanese woman, the one known around the world: demure and white-faced and doll-like.” A local business owner named Mark tells Johnson that in Japan, “you have to stay in your place. You have to be a good Japanese woman. For amejo to be so bold, that’s kind of badass.”
The first “international marriage” in Okinawa was recorded in a local newspaper in August 1947, when a twenty-three-year-old soldier from Ohio married a nineteen-year-old seamstress from the town of Ginowan. The couple received a certificate from the civilian governor, but the marriage was annulled by a commanding officer one month later. They eventually settled in the US; with the passage of the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952, their marriage—between an American and an Asian—was no longer illegal. Between 1952 and 1975, when the Vietnam War ended and fewer troops began to pass through Okinawa, 66,000 Japanese women emigrated to the United States as the wives of US servicemen.*
Johnson observes that, on the island, “resources to prevent and solve relationship problems are hard to find…. Lawyers for international divorce or child-support cases are scarce”; family and friends of Okinawan women seeking help may adopt an attitude of what did you expect? She cites a local government estimate that around two hundred “Amerasian children are born annually.” These children, known as shima hafu, face difficulties ranging from bullying to outright discrimination in the education system, which is still undergirded, as is the rest of Japanese society, by notions of racial purity. Yet the shima hafu with whom Johnson speaks see themselves proudly as mediators between cultures. Tamaki, the current governor of Okinawa, embodies these contradictions. The son of a US Marine and an Okinawan waitress, he was the first Amerasian member of the Japanese House of Representatives. Tamaki is also clear on which side he stands. As he said during his campaign, “It’s about time the Japanese government let Okinawa go back to its original self.”
But for many younger people, the concept of Okinawa’s “original self” is meaningless. How far back would Okinawans have to go? Before the Americans arrived? Before the Japanese occupation? Before Chinese control, when the island was a feudal matriarchy?
When I first arrived in Okinawa in 2017 with my husband, a navy doctor who was stationed for two years with the Third Marine Expeditionary Force, I came to see a generational divide in Okinawan attitudes toward us. The English-speaking cafés around the bases were run by young people happy to accept either dollars or yen for Starbucks-inspired seasonal lattes and pancake plates. These cafés, often housed in decommissioned concrete military buildings, play on American styles: at the eponymous American Village, a shopping complex near an air force base, the design principle is midcentury diner kitsch.
Meanwhile, the protesters I saw around the bases were considerably older. They are dismissed by Americans as fly-ins from the mainland. But this story seemed a little convenient. The protesters were often dressed in traditional Ryukyu-style block prints and looked a lot like the octogenarian locals who strode along the seawall on their evening constitutionals. (There are a lot of old people in Okinawa to attend such protests: ten years ago, the island was identified by a National Geographic study as one of the world’s “blue zones”—a place of unusual longevity credited to a combination of sunny climate, healthy diet, and active lifestyle.)
Our first Wednesday on the island, we attended a mandatory orientation for families. You can fill a mess hall with American families for such an orientation every week. In the first few decades after World War II, the battle-scarred island of Okinawa was one of the least desirable of overseas postings. But at the end of the cold war, and unlike most other stations abroad, military personnel were permitted to bring their families to Okinawa, and its reputation changed. Especially among enlisted service members, Okinawa is now marketed as a kind of spring-break destination. Military marinas offer subsidized watersports, pretty and economical beachside cabins are available to rent, the sunsets over the East China Sea are as spectacular as Hawaii’s, and there’s a frisson of the exotic, with cherry blossoms every March and village harvest festivals in the fall. Of course, a tour of duty is longer and considerably less cushy than a vacation. Marines on average are stationed overseas for two years; the air force sends its personnel for four.
While for many a stint in Okinawa is a chance to feel at home in a beautiful place abroad, for younger recruits, the experience can be stultifying. Suicide rates are high, and trained fighters with little to do can be dangerous. Toward the end of our time in Okinawa, a few blocks from where we were living off-base, a navy corpsman, Gabriel A. Olivero, and a Japanese woman were found dead in her apartment; he had stabbed the woman and then killed himself. At that point a month-long curfew was imposed for all American troops and their families, protests resumed at base gates, and the long-planned move of the Futenma Marine base from Naha to the jungle up north was further delayed as activists tried to have it shut down altogether. Black-and-white stickers appeared on light poles and pavements spelling out an inarguable pair of demands: “NO RAPE, NO BASE.”
Few of the thousands of military bases that the US maintains around the world are in settings quite as combustible as Okinawa, where the bases are so vast and so different from the local culture. Until the murder, I had felt entirely at home in the Okinawan community. Our car’s license plate, as with all those registered to Americans, began with a “Y,” and there were certain restaurants and bars we were told not to enter as they were reserved for locals. But following Olivero’s crime, I became aware that I was intruding on the land of others and began changing my routine. I was less inclined to visit the Japanese grocery store and started frequenting the commissary on-base.
At the English discussion class on the Futenma base organized by Kiki, Johnson meets Naomi, an Okinawan woman, who is caught between two worlds. She works at the US naval hospital but the rest of her family is against the US military presence. Her parents even tried to stop her from working on-base. Passing by protesters at the gates, she feels scared: “They don’t say it to me, but I feel like I’m their enemy.” Johnson writes that Naomi hated seeing Okinawans fight one another like this, in conflict over the US military presence. When she saw protesters who could have been her grandparents outside her workplace, she thought about what larger powers had led them to take such action. “It makes me think we were forced to fight for somebody’s gain,” she said, and she implied that “that somebody was the US and Japanese governments.”
Fighting for somebody else’s gain is a predicament to which a lot of people in Okinawa can relate. For Americans, amid the tedium of base life, something worse awaits: deployment to faraway wars, for months and even years. The experiences of American women on the island—both those with family members on active duty and those on active duty themselves—make up another theme in Johnson’s book. At a St. Patrick’s Day party, she interviews Ashley, the twentysomething wife of an officer in the marine corps, who busies herself organizing workshops and training for servicemembers but is plainly frustrated with the limits of her on-base existence. “Being a wife is the hardest job in the military” goes the needlepoint cliché; this is patently not true given the comparative fatality rates of those on duty, but for those left behind, the situation is not easy. Spouses must run their households alone in a foreign country, thousands of miles from their support networks, with no chance of regular employment. In response, a cottage industry of military wives running Facebook businesses has sprung up: their photography studios, essential oil schemes, and yoga classes are both a source of income and a diversion from the constant stress of a partner’s deployment.
One such business I patronized while living in Okinawa was run by the wife of an airman. She and her father, who were both Thai, cooked and delivered meals to American homes on- and off-base. One day when she came by my apartment with a week’s worth of pad thai and green curry, the woman appeared extremely agitated. She explained that her husband had recently been sent to Afghanistan for ten months, and she’d just heard the news that a member of his small unit had died in a bombing west of Kabul. This was not unusual: 2,440 Americans have died in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001, and more than 20,000 service members have been wounded in action. But strange as it might sound, after two years “on island,” the conversation was shocking. Amid two ongoing wars in the Middle East and—closer to Okinawa—fraught relations with China over nearby territory in the South China Sea, it occurred to me that no one in Okinawa talked about war.
Despite the awful news, for security reasons the woman couldn’t even contact her husband. It would be a year before they could reunite. Meanwhile, she was stuck at the southern tip of Japanese territory on a steamy August night, with a toddler in tow and a trunkload more meals to deliver. Alone, but also in the thick of it.
Elizabeth Miki Brina’s Speak, Okinawa, which will be published by Knopf in February, examines the relationship between her mother, a nightclub hostess in Okinawa, and her father, an American army officer stationed there after four years in Vietnam. The memoir also imagines past interactions of Okinawans and Americans, including those of civilian islanders hiding underground from Allied forces during World War II and members of Commodore Matthew Perry’s expedition to Okinawa in the nineteenth century. ↩