Books

'Night in the American Village': Touching base with the women of Okinawa

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

Nestled in the waters between the giants of Asia, Okinawa has long been considered what journalist Akemi Johnson identifies as a “contact zone,” with a 22,000-year history of intersecting cultures, trade and conflict.

Night in the American Village, by Akemi Johnson.
336 pages
THE NEW PRESS, Nonfiction.

For anyone living in Japan, the complicated tensions between Okinawa, the U.S. and mainland Japan are well-known: Today, 32 American facilities dot the islands and around 50,000 U.S. citizens call Okinawa home. Crimes by servicemen, military accidents, reports of chemical spills or the destruction of natural habitats provide a persuasive foundation to the outcry that Okinawa shoulders too much of the burden of the American military presence in Japan. But, as Johnson reveals in “Night in the American Village,” out this month, this relationship is a complex and shifting one.

Modern Okinawa pulses a heady mix of cultures and peoples. Johnson’s meticulously researched perspectives on the intersections between Okinawans and Americans effectively season the island’s tragedies with its triumphs. Here, she shares 11 narratives from women directly involved in the island’s many contact zones: workers from the American base and the sex-club workers who service them, wives of servicemen, advocates and lovers, protestors, friends — and victims.

The first chapter, “Rina,” is named for Rina Shimabukuro, the 20-year-old office worker raped and murdered by an ex-marine in 2016. Through the telling of the tragedy and its aftermath, Johnson introduces the main tension simmering on the island. As she explains: “I started with Rina’s story because it both represents the larger story of Okinawa and it also reveals what people often get wrong about Okinawa. There’s really a long history of military sexual violence, and we hear about some incidences, like Rina or the 1995 rape, but, as I found, it’s much more extensive and many incidences go unreported.”

From any perspective, Rina’s story is tragic, but Johnson cautions against using any one incident to cast the entire American/Okinawan relationship into a dichotomy of oppressors over victims. “Crimes like this are often used as a metaphor for the whole complicated situation,” Johnson explains, “but living there, I realized it’s an incomplete metaphor.”

Johnson structures her work around women’s voices because, as she says, “women are arguably the most affected by the U.S. military presence. There’s many reasons, like the sexual violence, but also because they are more likely to date and marry U.S. service members or work in the entertainment areas around the bases. And then also, some Okinawan women told me they prefer working on base, as it has a better and more equitable working environment than working off-base in Japanese or Okinawan society.”

The power of Johnson’s book lies in its balanced accessibility. She gives voice to Okinawan activists like Suzuyo Takazato and Chie Miyagi, but she also listens to a military wife, Ashley, and the voice of a biracial Okinawan, Miyo. She takes us along to the parties of the amejo, women who prefer dating American men, defiant with their dyed hair and tanned skin, and deftly adds context to each narrative, providing historical or cultural details so that a complete picture of Okinawa emerges.

The book is a lively, fascinating mix of perspectives, impressive in both its research and the humanity with which it portrays its subjects. In the Suzuyo chapter, for example, Johnson peppers the narrative with archived military reports of sexual abuse, chilling in their sparse detail: “Feb. 22, 1969: A 19-year-old woman is strangled to death in Koza City by a U.S. private second-class who works at Machinato supply base.”

Johnson never turns away from reporting the appalling sexual violence, but she also consistently reminds us it only tells part of the story. “Sometimes we only hear the victim stories,” Johnson elaborates. “But … most Okinawans don’t have a victim relationship with the U.S. military. Instead of being passive, they are actively choosing to engage with the military presence.” Johnson provides positive narratives, like that of Daisy, a Philippina woman working in the entertainment district off-base. “Daisy did not feel she was a victim, she felt strongly in her own choices, and it empowered her to build a life in Okinawa.”

Johnson, a fourth-generation Japanese on her mother’s side raised in the States, first visited Japan as a university student on exchange to Kyoto. But the country and culture didn’t truly resonate until she visited Okinawa. As she explains: “I connected with Okinawa so much more than I had in Kyoto or the mainland.” Awarded a Fulbright Grant, Johnson spent a year living and researching directly across from the base in Ginowan.

“Night in the American Village” should be high on the reading list for anyone interested in the intersection of cultures, on the divides of power and gender, and on the politics and people behind the overseas American military presence. As Johnson concludes in the first chapter: “… Their stories paint a nuanced portrait of the U.S. military presence in Okinawa — how it persists, how it should change and what life is like at the edges of the American empire, in all its darkness and glory.”