I’ve read nearly a hundred English-language works on the Ryukyus and Okinawa, and Night in the American Village is an easy pick for my top five books. It’s cleverly structured, well researched, informative yet highly readable, and, unusual for a book examining the issue of the American military presence on Okinawa, it strives for balance. Author Akemi Johnson is not falsely pretending to be on the fence – it’s obvious she would like a greatly reduced base presence, and states this in her concluding passage – but she does not hit the reader over the head with a hammer. 

Although the American occupation of Japan ended in 1952, the U.S. military won continued rule of Okinawa for another twenty years, during which time the number of bases grew rapidly. The footprint on the island remains huge: Johnson cites a figure of “50,000 American military personnel, civilian contractors, and family members to the island’s population of 1.4 million.” The marine corps has the largest share with eighteen thousand, and are the main target of anti-base activists, who argue rather convincingly that the marines serve no real strategic purpose. In case of regional emergencies, they say marines could be dispatched from other locations with little lose of time; furthermore, the marines use Okinawa for training, which could be done elsewhere. And in terms of defending Japan, the country’s modestly named but powerful Self-Defense Forces are fully capable.

Akemi Johnson first traveled to Okinawa in 2002 for a vacation when she was a college student studying in Kyoto. Since then she’s returned numerous times, including for a year’s residence on the island. From the beginning, there was something about the hybrid world around the bases which spoke to her in a personal way. She’s a fourth-generation Japanese American on her mother’s side while her father’s side goes back to the earliest European settlers. 

 I had spent my adult life figuring out my identity in a triangulation with the United States and Japan, and on Okinawa I found an island of people doing the same. A contact zone is what Okinawa is called in academic speak—a place where ideologies, cultures, and politics collide. This is familiar terrain for a mixed-race person; in the melding and clashing I recognized something powerful. Instead of pollution or dilution, I saw creation. I saw people forging new identities, networks, and spaces—though the stories I heard told about Okinawa didn’t seem to capture these shades of gray.

Night in the American Village reminds me of an excellent book published in 2000: Ruth Ann Keyso’s Women of Okinawa: Nine Voices from a Garrison Island. As suggested by the title, the latter book consists of profiles of nine Okinawan women, which are based largely on lengthy interviews and the women’s stories told in their own words. As good as Women of Okinawa is, Night in the American Village is a superior work and a more satisfying read because of the added information and commentary on Okinawa which is expertly woven into the personal narratives.

Night in the American Village has eleven chapters, each named after a woman. The first chapter concerns the 2016 rape and murder of a twenty-year-old office worker by an ex-marine who was working as a civilian contractor to the U.S. bases. On Okinawa such a tragedy is more than a crime case. It can – depending on the specifics, for example whether the woman dated soldiers, or whether she was raped – be political dynamite. 

For anti-base activists, the most powerful story is a rape. A rape of an Okinawan woman or girl by a U.S. serviceman snaps people awake in ways a helicopter crash, chemical spill, bar-room brawl, or threatened coral reef can’t. … When a U.S. 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 most famous rape case is from 1995 – it seems every book or article on Okinawa brings it up – and though I have read about it many times, Johnson presents some interesting material and thoughts on it which I had not encountered before. Because the rape was so brutal and the victim just twelve years old, it sparked much more outrage than murder cases.

For instance, a few months before the 1995 rape, a U.S. serviceman on Okinawa beat his Japanese girlfriend to death with a hammer. “He hit her head more than twenty times or something,” veteran journalist Chiyomi Sumida told me. “It was such a vicious murder.” But she said hardly any reporters attended the trial. The woman’s death didn’t mobilize tens of thousands of people. The woman’s death isn’t in Okinawa history books and museums. The woman was dating the soldier, and she was from mainland Japan. She wasn’t a good symbol.

Johnson began gathering stories of Okinawans because she was tired of the “crude dichotomies, wielded for political use.” During her stays in Okinawa, Johnson spent time with local women in the “contact zone” around the bases, getting to know the girlfriends and wives of U.S. servicemen, women working on and near the bases, and activists. Their stories reveal in a nuanced way the strength and range of impacts the bases have on individuals and communities, and the background to the personal stories also give us the modern history of Okinawa. In Chapter 4 we meet “Sachiko” who was a member of the Zuisen Student Corps, nurses recruited from high school, during the Battle of Okinawa, the last “great” battle of the Second World War: 

The girls saw sights that would haunt them forever: babies suckling from headless mothers, blasted soldiers with dangling eyeballs, people stuffing their intestines back into their bodies, classmates whose faces, buttocks, or limbs were blown away. The girls became numb to this type of death.

Sachiko was one of twenty-eight survivors from the sixty-one girls in the unit. Rather than be taken prisoner, military and civilians were often told to commit suicide. “A military doctor helped save her from suicide by telling her she must live in order to let mainland Japanese know what had happened in Okinawa.” Amazing as Sachiko’s story is, what happened to her family on a small nearby island provides an even more chilling episode. 

In Chapter 7 we meet “Daisy.” Escaping from poverty in the Philippines, she first came to Okinawa in 1992 at the age of twenty-four to work as a club hostess. Daisy’s story provides a good frame for the author to explain the various twists and turns of prostitution through the decades. Prostitution became illegal in 1972 when Okinawa reverted to Japanese control. This law change and the shrinking pool of impoverished local women created a shortage of flesh. The industry response was to bring in large numbers of overseas workers on entertainment visas. “Soon, Filipinas replaced Okinawans in the red-light districts outside the base gates.”

A 2006 anti-trafficking report which embarrassed Japan led to a crackdown on the entertainment visa system. The importation model moved to shady marriages, but the club scene around the military bases is pretty quiet these days, in part from early curfews. (Collective punishment which strikes me as unfair.) There’s a touching ending to Daisy’s story – I won’t spoil it by giving details here other than to say she’s happily living in Okinawa.

Chapter 8 features “Miyo,” daughter of an African American veteran and an Okinawan woman. We learn about the AmerAsian School in Okinawa (AASO), founded in 1998 by five Okinawan mothers, who wanted to give their biracial children a bicultural, bilingual education, (and where the author spent a summer volunteering). 

In Chapter 9, “Kiki,” an Okinawa office worker at Air Station Futenma, expresses a preference for her “American-style” workplace. She enjoys the freedom and less sexist environment – and not having to fetch tea and coffee for her male co-workers. 

One of the things that comes through in Night in the American Villageis that Okinawans will experience of working on the bases are usually pro-American: 

The consensus among those who worked on base, though, seemed to be that the papers exaggerated any crimes or accidents committed by American servicemembers on the island, in order to incite anti-base sentiment, while downplaying incidents involving locals. The newspapers gave the impression that everyone in Okinawa was against the U.S. military presence, they told me.

Chapter 6 features “Suzuyo,” Okinawa’s “highest-profile female activist,” and in the last two profiles – Chapters 10 and 11 – two anti-base activists, and this fits with the author’s concluding comments: “But the more I learned about the situation and history, the more I felt bases in Okinawa need to close.”

Night in the American Village: Women in the Shadow of the U.S. Military Bases in Okinawa is a beautifully written book, packed with information, and persuasive. Whereas other books on the subject usually make me roll my eyes at their narrow-minded partisanship, it moved my stance a few notches on the issue of U.S. bases toward support for reducing troop numbers on the island. As a long-term resident of nearby Taiwan, I am immensely grateful to the American military in Okinawa, especially the air force, as a deterrent to the very real risk of PRC aggression. However, the burden carried by Okinawa is obviously unfair and should be lightened in accordance with the wishes of the Okinawan people. 

Night in the American Village is published by The New Press and is also available from various other retailers such as Amazon.com