The main island of Okinawa today is an intensely militarised US ‘garrison island’ in the Pacific. US Forces in Japan (USFJ) are concentrated here and more than 18 per cent of the main island is occupied by US airfields, warehouses, barracks, firing ranges, hospitals, and post-exchange shops, making up what are known as ‘America Towns’ confined behind fences and barbed wire (Gillem 2007). Some 56,000 members of the US forces and their families train, work and live in this segregated space, while more than one million local residents live around the fenced properties, tightly confined on the remaining land. In Okinawa, as in other places, colonisation is experienced in the concrete forms of various gendered relations — violent, amicable, tem­porary, romantic, and abusive — closely associated with military occupation. Sex is an informal and private ‘contact zone’ between the two domains (see Pratt 1992: 7), albeit regulated in various ways by the US military, the Japanese government and the local Okinawan prefectural government.

Although there are US bases in other parts of Japan, the situation in Okinawa is distinctive. To understand this distinctiveness, we need to briefly note some features of Ryukyu history. Since the Ryukyu islands were annexed by Japan in 1879, both Japanese and US colonialism and militarism have defined islanders’ lives. Prostitution has existed since at least 1672, with the Ryukyu court’s creation of an officially sanctioned district for prostitution around Tsuji in Naha. Poor families from villages all over the Ryukyus sold daughters to Tsuji, to be raised and trained as professional prostitutes, called juri. After annexation, Tsuji was frequented by Japanese colonial officials, and later by Imperial Japanese Army personnel. After Tsuji was burned down in the US raid on Naha in October 1944, local women were mobilised into the military brothels, most of them against their will (Takazato 1998: 457—58), alongside women transported from Korea. Local historians have unearthed as many as 146 wartime military brothels built since 1941 across Okinawa, including remote islands such as Miyako and Iriomote (Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace 2012: 14, 20-21).

In March 1945, Okinawa became the site of 82 days of fighting between the US and Japan, known as the Battle of Okinawa. The battle claimed more than 122,000 civilian casualties, over a quarter of the island’s local population at the time. One of the most contentious issues is the ‘group suicides’ of Okinawans carried out at the time of US landings. Feminist historian Miyagi Harumi (2009a, 2009b) uses the term ‘group suicides’ in quotation marks, and points out an often overlooked gendered dynamic. It was the anticipated shame which would be placed on rape victims and their families which forced the residents to choose ‘group suicide’ before capture. In Zamami Island, where more than half of the villagers died this way, most casualties (83 per cent) were women and children killed at the hands of their fathers, brothers or sons. The stories of the deaths of Okinawan teenage girls in the Himeyuri (Maiden Lily) Student Nurse Corps have been integrated into mainland Japanese narratives of war centred on victimhood.

After 1945, the entire island was secured for US defence purposes: the military removed local residents from their homes, put them in internment camps, and instituted military rule (Sarantakes 2000: 37). US soldiers committed numerous sexual assaults on local women, even infants and elderly women, sometimes in front of family members (Okinawa Taimusu Sha 1980, 24—25, cited in Kikuchi 2010:111). Sexual violence became a recurrent source of friction between local community members and the US occupiers (Sarantekes 2000: 73).

The military government officially prohibited prostitution in the 1947 Special Proclamations 14 and 15, but the US Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands (USCAR, established in 1949) instigated the establishment of ‘special drinking business districts’ that provided soldiers with alcohol and sexual services in central Okinawa. This seemingly contradictory policy was in order to control the spread of sexually transmissible diseases (STDs) among the US personnel. Women engaged in prostitution were concentrated in limited areas, with regular medical examinations and treatment. Despite opposition, the special district of Koza (now Okinawa City), was reluctantly accepted and justified by the need to control US—Okinawan sexual relations to protect a majority of women and children.

Before 1946 most Okinawans had made their living from agriculture. As land suited for farming was also suited for building airfields, training grounds and munitions disposal areas, 20 per cent of formerly cultivated land was behind barbed wire and fences in 1947. The soil had become infertile because of the military use, and farming provided only 13.9 per cent of the gross income in 1964. Now local residents had nothing but their labour to sell to the occupation forces (Fische, 2005: 79, 168, 169), and prostitution around US military facilities became the only source of income for many local women. Shimabuku argues that women’s bodies literally became ‘a terrain rich in sexual resources that they must work in order to produce in a new base-centred economy’ (2010, 367).

Kikuchi (2010) argues that the prohibition of prostitution and control of sexually transmissible diseases was simultaneously an effective political measure for governing Okinawan society. The US at times prohibited US military personnel from entering certain districts, quoting the practice of prostitution as the reason, but often using such prohibition to discourage protests against the occupying forces (Tanji 2006: 103). Deprived of their source ofincome, the Okinawan business owners and workers would petition to have the bans lifted, and comply with the US requirements of forced treatments for STDs and the restriction of female workers’ mobility (Kikuchi 2010, 119-24).

In 1953, the US military police responded to high rates of STDs in the US forces by requiring bars, restaurants and cafes to obtain and display a permit that proves grade ‘A’ hygienic standards (Sarantakes 2000, 104). Under this system, which persisted until Okinawa’s reversion to Japan in 1972, businesses without ‘A’ permits were prohibited from serving US military members. This reduced the number of legal businesses, further facilitating STD inspections, and had the effect of dramatically reducing individual street prostitution. The US personnel paid these businesses for the opportunities to meet women working as hostesses, often in the guise of ‘dating’ (Kikuchi 149—50). Under this regime, the illegal sex industry thrived, making Okinawa an ‘island of prostitution’. According to a survey conducted in 1969, ‘one out of every 50 women was involved in prostitution’ (Takazato 2007, 44), and in 1970 the income earned by prostitution was more than the sugar-cane industry, then the biggest local industry (Sturdevant and Stoltzfus 1992, 252).

Local women engaged in illicit sexual labour have been constantly one step away from violence and death. According to Takazato Suzuyo, a former counsellor, many women serving US soldiers suffered fatal or near-fatal violence and still suffered nightmares decades later (Kikuchi 2010, 157-58; Okinawan Women Act Against Military Violence [OWAMMV] 2011: 19-20). Most cases of violence and sexual violence against local women who worked in ‘A sign’ districts were either unsolved, acquitted or ‘results not known’. Violence against women working in this stigmatised industry largely failed to arouse public concern, and the women were often criticised for putting themselves in a vulnerable situation, rather than focusing on the perpetrators.

On at least two occasions, however, incidents of sexual violence have aroused political protest. One case in 1955 involved the rape and murder of a five-year-old girl; another involved the rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl in 1995. On both occasions, the victims’ sexual innocence was the focus and the assaults were seen as abstract metaphors for the violation of Okinawa’s sovereignty. They were seen as innocent victims in a similar way to the story of the Himeyuri schoolgirls’ death in the Battle of Okinawa (see Angst 2001).

In the US military, as in other military institutions, soldiers have been trained in a particularly aggressive form of masculinity. The military’s need to nurture aggressive militarised masculinity might also explain the leniency towards its members’ sexual crimes and violence. In Okinawa, US military crimes on local residents were exclusively dealt with in court martials until 1972. Only following reversion to Japan were US military crimes committed off-duty handled at local courts. The US-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) confers sole US jurisdiction over US crimes committed on duty outside the military bases, which is open to interpretation by the US military authority. SOFA also restricts the local custody of US suspects prior to trial, and various other local rights, to protect the privileges of US military personnel. To the locals, SOFA prolongs the inequalities and lack of respect for Okinawans’ basic human rights and sovereignty. (Similar Status of Forces Agreements are in place in South Korea and other places hosting US bases.)

Similar to South Korea and mainland Japan, sex work is increasingly being carried out in Okinawa by immigrant workers. Many come from the Philippines, mediated by local gangsters (Sturdevant and Stoltzfus 1992). These immigrant women are vulnerable in various ways. In 1982, two Filipino women were burned to death in a nightclub near a military base, unable to escape as they were confined to their rooms (Takazato 2007, 45). Undocumented workers are particularly vulnerable.

Children born to local women and US military personnel have been subjected to particularly fierce discrimination. Until the revision of Japan’s Nationality Law in 1985 to allow women to pass on nationality to their children, such children were often stateless (Takushi 2000, 12-14). As in Occupation period Japan, local women who fraternise with US soldiers have often been stigmatised. Although the rights and social position of local women who marry US military personnel are legally sanctioned, Ames (2010) points out their isolation in the local community, especially when exposed to hostility from anti-base activists.

Prompted by the 1995 rape incident, Takazato and her Okinawan colleagues organised the group, Okinawan Women Act Against Military Violence (OWAAMV). OWAAMV members are distinctive in their attempt to make sexism and gendered military violence a central focus of the Okinawan anti-base struggle, which has traditionally focused on political sovereignty. They also gave birth to a transnational women’s movement against militarism as a patriarchal institution (Akibayashi and Takazato 2009: 264—65). While often working with mainland Japanese women, the OWAAMV members have recorded specifically ‘Okinawan’ experiences. For instance, as few cases have been reported, let alone punished, the accurate number of the US military’s sexual crimes involving Okinawan locals since the early Occupation era is unknown. US crimes in Okinawa have been relegated to an informal oral history, excluded from official history (Kikuchi 2010: 127). Frustrated by the non-existence of systematic data on military crimes in Okinawa, OWAAMV started creating their own data, an ongoing compilation from hearings, interviews, historical records and police records. Their message, that the ‘military does not protect women’, has nevertheless appealed to broader humanity, and has created a platform for activism with women in other regions similarly hosting US military bases, but particularly places with a colonial history like South Korea, the Philippines, Hawaii, Guam, and Puerto Rico.

Conclusion

Militarised sexualities can be observed in most of the countries of the region. In some countries this is because matters of marriage, sexuality and reproduction are shaped by the government’s privileging of military concerns. This is true even when a nation is not actually at war. The post-Second World War Allied Occupation of Japan and Okinawa, and the anti-Communist wars on the Korean peninsula in the 1950s and in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s brought the armies of the US and its allies to the region. In each war zone, sexual service industries were created or adapted to serve the occupying armies, often stratified and segregated along racialised lines. This was paralleled by the development of a transnational sexual service industry, initially servicing soldiers on so-called ‘rest and recreation’ leave, but gradually morphing into a transnational tourist industry based on the provision of sexual services to tourists from wealthier countries. Japan (particularly Okinawa) and South Korea continue to host US bases, but as these two countries have become more prosperous, sexual services are increasingly being provided by immigrant workers from poorer countries. Issues of sexual violence in areas surrounding military bases have often led to political protests, and activists in the region who are faced with similar problems are increasingly seeking international solidarity with other similar communities. Their campaigns are overlaid by history, as they make con­nections with earlier examples of the mutual imbrication of militarised violence and militarised sexualities.