From the pages of February 1996

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The Peace Movement in Okinawa

By Rick Mercier

 

One fine spring day in 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry showed up in Okinawa's Naha Harbor accompanied by four battleships. Perry, on his way to Tokyo, left behind a small detachment in Okinawa. This occupation of Okinawa (the first one by the United States) was rather uneventful until the night of June 12, when an American sailor named William Board broke into the home of a 50-year-old Okinawan woman and raped her. Several men in the woman's neighborhood heard her screams and gave chase. Their pursuit ended on a pier in Naha Harbor, where Board fell (or was pushed) into the water and drowned. A few weeks later, Perry returned to Okinawa and demanded a trial for the men who had chased Board. The supposed leader was sentenced to banishment from the island for life; the other men were sentenced to be banished for eight years. Before leaving Okinawa, Perry demonstrated his “keen sensitivity” by presenting the woman whom Board had raped with “a handsome present” consisting of a few yards of cotton cloth.

Today in Okinawa, the recent abduction and rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl, allegedly by three U.S. servicemen, is still on everyone's mind. Yet, contrary to the impression created by the mass media, Okinawans' discontent with the U.S. military occupation of their home did not “beg[i]n with the rape of a 12-year-old girl” (as Time magazine put it). Moreover, the rape was not an isolated incident but rather part of a continuing pattern of violence by U.S. military personnel against Okinawan women and girls. Partly a response to this persistent violence, and partly general opposition to militarism, the anti-base movement has been building for decades.

 

A Bad Neighbor Policy

A recent week in Okinawa provides ample evidence of the depth and diversity of the anti-base movement in Okinawa. In front of the prefecture offices in Naha, a women's group and landowners who are refusing to renew leases with the U.S. military are holding a four-day sit-in. They are joined by about 100 members from the public employees union who hold a two-day hunger strike and pass out yellow ribbons to the many sympathetic passersby. Two marches follow the closing of the sit-in and hunger strike -- one by students and workers, the other by the anti-base landowners and their supporters. The women's group, meanwhile, holds a strategy meeting to decide the course of their struggle. Later in the week, a peace group from mainland Japan brings approximately 1,300 members to Okinawa to learn about what is happening in the island prefecture. At the same time, members from the Okinawan women's group take their message to conferences in Tokyo and Fukuoka. All of this occurred a month after the October 21 demonstration in Okinawa which drew 85,000 participants, and more than two months after the rape of the schoolgirl (or “The Incident,” as many Okinawans now euphemistically refer to it).

Concern about the massive U.S. military presence in Japan is increasing all over the country. According to a poll conducted by a Japanese daily newspaper in late October, support for the U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, which lays the legal foundation for U.S. troop deployment in Japan, has fallen 10 points since 1992 to only 42 percent. In addition, more than half a million Japanese citizens have signed a petition demanding a scaling back of the U.S. military presence. When a group of Okinawan women went to Tokyo on November to meet with officials from the prime minister's office and deliver a petition with the signatures of 55,000 Okinawans, they were supported by a group of about 4,000 demonstrators from all over Japan, as well as a contingent of Filipino nationals and several Buddhist monks. Speaking the next day to participants at the Naha sit-in, longtime Okinawan peace activist Fumiko Nakamura compared the recent wave of protest to one that followed the horrific rape and murder of a six-year-old Okinawan girl in 1955 by a U.S. military officer. “Back then, only Okinawa rose up,” she said. “Now it seems all of Japan is interested, and I am encouraged by this.”

The U.S. military, meanwhile, has begun to portray itself as the victim. A spokesperson for the United States Forces in Japan told an Associated Press reporter that “you want to feel like you're part of the neighborhood. It hurts when you are getting beat up in the press every day.”

In the Futenma section of Ginowan, a city in central Okinawa with Futenma Air Base in its center, residents can never forget that the U.S. military is a “part of the neighborhood.” Helicopters flying overhead are common, and on many days, enormous cargo planes take off about every 15 minutes. A 1994 study found that noise-emission levels produced by U.S. military aircraft around Futenma Air Base exceeded acceptable environmental standards at 9 of the 12 locations surveyed.

Citizens living near Futenma Air Base also must live with the constant threat of a major aircraft accident. There have been 121 military-related accidents in Okinawa prefecture or in the surrounding sea since the prefecture was returned to Japan in 1972. Six aircraft have crashed in or around Okinawa since April 1994. In Futenma, people are well aware of the possibility of a catastrophe in their neighborhood. There have been three helicopter crashes on the grounds of Futenma Air Base since 1980. The last one, in 1992, occurred dangerously close to Dai-ni Elementary School, which is separated from the base by a chain-link fence.

Even with the noise and the omnipresent danger, the bases nevertheless arouse a complexity of emotions in Okinawans. This is especially true for younger people, who often see nothing unusual since it's all they've ever known. Mayumi Tengan, a 27-year-old woman who is part of a study group that focuses on women's, peace, and environmental issues, says that when she was younger “it seemed natural” to have such an enormous military presence on the island. “Maybe I was even proud of having the bases here. For me, the military bases equaled American culture, and that seemed to make Okinawa different from the mainland Japan,” she explains. Tengan now has a different understanding. In preparation for a workshop at the Beijing NGO Women's Conference, she conducted fieldwork with young women to learn more about their attitudes toward the military. In materials written for the workshop, Tengan says: “Young women wish to taste the illusion of freedom associated with American culture . . . It causes the young women to fall in love with the American GIs. These same GIs who engage in combat drills inside the bases pass through the base gates dressed in civilian clothes, appearing as `ordinary Americans,' and almost all of the young women who relate to them have no awareness of them as soldiers. . . .[T]hey wholeheartedly accept the `feel-good' illusion that `military bases=America (a fascinating foreign culture).' This, in turn, leads them to accept the entire structure of militarism without question.”

Things may be changing, though, among young people in Okinawa. “Without the rape incident by the servicemen, students might not have thought much about the bases, but after this incident they are really thinking about them,” says Kei Taira, a young woman who attends Futenma High.

 

The Green Berets

Onna is home to some of the best beaches on Okinawa island and some parts of the village -- which stretches out along the west coast of the island -- have seen an infusion of Japanese resort capital. For the most part, however, the village is pretty nondescript -- that is, until one learns that 30 percent of the total land area of Onna is actually within the confines of Camp Hansen, a base for the Marines and Army Special Forces. Vast sections of Onna were enclosed in April 1950 (just two months before the United States went to war in Korea), and live-ammunition drills soon destroyed the delicate terraced tea fields that villagers had started cultivating after the war to rebuild their lives.

The confiscation and enclosure of a large part of Onna village is but one example of the massive expropriation campaign conducted by the U.S. military following the Battle of Okinawa and continuing into the 1950s. Okinawans who survived the battle were placed in internment camps; meanwhile, U.S. forces began seizing land and building military facilities all over Okinawa. Film footage shot by the U.S. military shows troops burning and bulldozing villages in a manner often associated with the scorched earth tactics employed by the United States in Vietnam. To this day, more than 50 years after the Battle of Okinawa, the land of some 30,000 Okinawan families remains occupied by the U.S. military (20 percent of the total land area of Okinawa island).

In the 1960s and early 1970s, as the B-52s took off from Kadena Air Force Base to pummel North Vietnam, Okinawans staged demonstrations demanding the return of Okinawa to Japan. The anger of Okinawans toward the U.S. military exploded in 1970, when a traffic accident caused by a U.S. serviceman led to a rebellion in which 73 U.S. Army vehicles were burned. Citizen pressure (and rebellion) compelled the United States to return Okinawa to Japan in 1972. The Japanese government, however, continued to offer Okinawa as a sacrifice, passing legislation that made it possible for the municipal, prefectural or federal government to sign leases in place of landowners who were unwilling to rent their land to the U.S. military. This legislation was necessitated by the initial refusal of about 3,000 landowners to offer their land up for military use, according to Osamu Taira, a peace activist and member of a group of anti-base landowners.

The antagonism continued into the 1980s, except Okinawans now understand that the central government in Tokyo was not on their side. By the mid-1980s, two segments of Okinawan society were at the forefront of the anti-base movement. One segment was composed of the anti-base landowners. A core group of about 100 anti-base landowners were joined by about 2,000 others who purchased a piece of land inside Kadena Air Force Base and divided it equally. The result of this action, says Taira, an owner of one of the small plots inside Kadena, was to complicate the leasing process (the central government has to try to gain permission to lease from each individual landowner) and to provide support to the 100 or so anti-base landowners who owned more sizable and strategically important tracts of land inside U.S. bases.

Women's groups and individual women constituted the other segment. By 1985, education and networking efforts resulted in a growing awareness of the effects of the bases on the lives of women and a determination to build a “tapestry” of support for women's autonomy. There were two significant events that year for the Okinawan women's movement. First, Okinawan women held a workshop at the 1985 Nairobi NGO Women's Conference on prostitution and women's labor. Second, Okinawan women inaugurated the Unai (sisterhood) Festival. “Women's autonomy, independence and networking are Unai`s distinctive features,” writes Suzuyo Takazato, a longtime women's and peace activist in Okinawa. “The festival,” she adds, “is like a tapestry of various groups and organizations including labor activists, artists, feminists, and alternative natural childbirth groups, peace and human rights activists, a group for mother's and children's issues, recycling groups, international cooperation groups, a women manager's society and a consumer's cooperative.”

Women and anti-base landowners kept the issue of the bases alive in the minds of Okinawans during the 1980s, but they were not alone. By the close of the decade, the Reagan-Bush militaristic agenda had significantly changed the landscape of Okinawa. The military build-up in Okinawa included:

This intensified militarization, along with the growing anti-military movement in the prefecture, provided the backdrop for the Onna uprising. In 1988, Onna citizens and public officials became alarmed by the construction of several new buildings on the grounds of Camp Hansen.

When Onna village lodged a complaint with the Japanese government about the construction of a Green Beret training facility, they received a reply stating, “On the basis of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, we cannot demand that the U.S. military stop the construction. The U.S. military has said that the facility will be safe, so please feel reassured.” In 1989, villagers understood that petitioning the government would not stop the construction, so a village committee started a campaign of blocking the road that construction crews and vehicles were using to gain access to the camp.

Villagers continued their obstruction of traffic into Camp Hansen throughout the spring and summer of 1989, and they erected a citizens' surveillance hut along the public road into the construction area in order to keep a close eye on what the military was doing. But the U.S. military, with the help of Japanese authorities, was intent on finishing the training facility. On September 6, about 50 construction vehicles and heavy machine guns were escorted into the camp by 100 Okinawan riot police. Villagers were infuriated. They installed a siren system at the surveillance hut to warn of any future “surprise attacks” by the military and the riot police. On October 7, the siren sounded and more than 300 citizens quickly gathered at the surveillance hut. The riot police commander ordered the villagers to disperse, but they remained in the road. Thus began a seven-hour standoff between the citizens and the cops. Eventually, 500 citizens (about a quarter of Onna Ward) would stage a sit-in on the road, defying the 200 or so riot police who had been dispatched to the scene. Finally, the police gave in, and the people of Onna had won a major victory against the U.S. military and the Japanese government. Construction on the urban warfare training facility was halted.

 

Misogyny and Militarism

This just goes to show how they think about Okinawan women,” says Suzuyo Takazato, as she points to the quote in the paper by Adm. Richard C. Macke. The admiral's sin, of course, was saying out loud what many military people probably had been thinking all along: “For the price they [the rape suspects] paid to rent the car, they could have had a girl.” The U.S. military's institutionalized contempt for Okinawan women, which creates the kind of environment within which soldiers can plot and then carry out brutal crimes against young girls, also has given rise to a strong and energetic women's movement in Okinawa.

When the Japanese Meiji Imperial government took advantage of its relative military strength to annex Okinawa, it ushered in a period of domination that would lead to immiseration for many and catastrophe for all Okinawans. The historical evidence indicates that women and girls paid a particularly high price. One of the first things the Meiji government did was pass a law allowing privileged classes to clear forests in Okinawa. Peasants, meanwhile, were prohibited from freely entering the forests as they had been used to doing in the past. This enclosure of the forests -- a prelude to the more extensive enclosure perpetrated by the U.S. military after the war and supported by the Japanese government up to this day -- resulted in great hardship for peasants. Many people left Okinawa in the following decades in search of a better life. For those who stayed, the prostitution of women and girls often became the only way to survive. A 1914 census revealed that 1,019 women lived and worked in the Tsuji licensed “entertainment” district.

Sexual violence and exploitation grew worse when the Japanese army arrived to fortify Okinawa in 1942. The Japanese military government set up 130 military brothels in houses, public buildings, barracks, storehouses, and even caves to serve the 100,000 soldiers deployed throughout the Okinawan islands. Between 400 and 500 Okinawan women and an estimated 1,000 abducted Korean women were compelled to offer their services as “comfort women,” or sexual slaves. When the horrors of war first visited Okinawa in 1944, bombing raids destroyed the Tsuji district and many of the survivors also became “comfort women.” In addition to prostitution and sexual slavery, women faced an increased risk of rape. There are numerous accounts of women who, having been raped and impregnated by Japanese soldiers, smothered their babies and buried them in the woods.

During the Battle of Okinawa, many women died in mass suicides/murders, and mothers were often forced by Japanese soldiers to suffocate crying babies as U.S. troops approached hideouts. Large numbers of schoolgirls also died while nursing Japanese soldiers. The suffering of Okinawan women did not end after the war. According to the book Postwar Okinawa and Okinawa Women, U.S. servicemen routinely raped Okinawan women in the period following the battle. Moreover, since so many women were widowed and since there was yet another army occupying Okinawa, prostitution remained a common means of subsistence.

During the Korean and Vietnam wars, Okinawa was not only a place from which to stage bombing raids and deploy troops, but also a place where soldiers could enjoy “R&R” (rest and relaxation) The U.S. military understood the important role Okinawan women played in reproducing GIs killing-power, and shortly after the Korean War broke out military authorities began implementing a system to regulate women's bodies. In July 1950 -- just one month after the U.S. got involved in hostilities in Korea -- the military issued “Venereal Disease Control Policy Proclamation No. 39,” which made venereal disease the top medical priority in Okinawa even though Okinawans had more pressing health needs, such as the control and eradication of tuberculosis, parasites, and a variety of acute infectious diseases. The proclamation called for all Okinawan women of reproductive age to undergo a venereal disease test when checking in at Okinawa Central Hospital for any examination. When the director of the hospital refused to comply with this order, the military decided not to impose mandatory venereal disease testing; however, the military did proceed to employ public health nurses to conduct surveys to track the routes of venereal disease transmission. Women found to be carrying venereal disease were treated and put under close watch by military police.

This system of regulation was bolstered in 1953, when the military decreed that all hotels, clubs and restaurants patronized by U.S. servicemen would be inspected regularly and establishments that passed inspection would display an “A” sign. All women working in such establishments were required to submit to weekly venereal disease tests. By the time of the Vietnam War, more than 1,200 places in Okinawa had “A” sign approval.

Prostitution remained legal in Okinawa up until the prefecture's reversion to Japan in 1972, and the Yaejima Approved Prostitution Zone, established three months after the outbreak of the Korean War, flourished, especially when the United States was at war in Asia. 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 to 60 was selling her body to earn a living. Many women wound up as prostitutes as a result of debt-bondage. “Sometimes daughters were sold into prostitution. Almost all women had a big amount of debt,” says Takazato. The economic power of GIs in relation to most Okinawans was enormous during the Vietnam War era. Teachers, for example, made about $80 a month, GIs earned $500.

Takazato says that prostitutes who served GIs during the Vietnam War were caught up in an international cycle of violence. “The customers were very violent because they had just landed at Kadena directly from Vietnam. They'd get off the plane, shower and go right to the hotels, brothels or clubs. They'd been fighting in the jungle just the day before, so their tension level was very high,” she says. The prostitutes feared the soldiers, adds Takazato. “They felt they might be killed by the men,” she says. “They'd ask the mamasan to knock on the door if they weren't out after 30 minutes. Many women were killed. When taking customers, quite a few times they were choked.”

The yen and the economy in Okinawa are much stronger than they were during the Vietnam War, so not nearly as many Okinawan women have to resort to prostitution these days. The prefecture, however, has seen an influx of Filipino women who have come to Okinawa with entertainment visas. Many of them work as prostitutes. The conditions of work for some of these women can be deadly. In 1983, two Filipino women died in a nightclub fire. They had been locked in a room with iron bars over the windows.

All women in Okinawa live with the constant threat of violent crime. The September rape is only the latest crime in a long series of violent incidents involving Okinawan women and U.S. soldiers. In May, a 24-year-old woman died after being hit in the face with a hammer by a U.S. serviceman. In May 1993, a 19-year-old woman was raped by a soldier who escaped while in the custody of U.S. military police. (He was captured in Tennessee two months later and sent back to Okinawa, but, by that time, the survivor of the crime had decided not to pursue the case.) Women's organizations in Okinawa argue that acts of violence by U.S. military personnel against Okinawan women should be put in the category of war crimes and should be investigated and punished as such. In April 1994, six Okinawan women's groups presented the prefectural governor with a petition calling for an investigation into the history of violations of women's human rights by military personnel.

Though Okinawan women have suffered greatly under military occupation (Japanese and U.S.), many still feel that there is the possibility for friendship and reconciliation with individual soldiers. On April 1, the 50th anniversary of the invasion of Okinawa by U.S. troops, Okinawans held a peace walk that passed by bases.

The U.S. military reaps considerable benefits from the arrangement established by the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. Japan's “Pacifist Constitution” obscures the fact that the nation plays a key role in the extension of U.S. military power around the globe. As the Pentagon explains, the relationship that the Japanese government has with the U.S. military allows for a division of military labor between Japan and the United States: “As a result of a division of roles and missions, in accordance with Japanese constitutional constraints, Japan has concentrated on defense of the home islands and sea lane defense out to 1,000 nautical miles while the United States has assumed responsibility for power projection and nuclear deterrence.”

The are some important lessons for us to learn from the experience of Okinawans. During World War II, Okinawans found out what can happen to those who are supposedly protected by the “security” umbrella of a great imperial power. They also know that people lose their autonomy when an outside power gains control of their land and resources. And finally, Okinawans (especially Okinawan women) know that their bodies and lives might be sacrificed to perpetuate a system of domination that depends on guns, money and the subjugation of certain groups of people. These are lessons that the rest of East Asia would do well to keep in mind as it moves arm-in-arm with the transnationals and the U.S. military into the next millennium.