• U.S.

Sex And Race In Okinawa

16 minute read
Lisa Takeuchi Cullen

Timothy Woodland is in a grave predicament. The 6-ft. 4-in., 24-year-old Air Force staff sergeant sits in a jail cell in Okinawa, Japan. He goes on trial next month in a proceeding that could last as long as a year. He has already been through Japan’s standard detention period–15 days in his case but sometimes as long as 23–during which a suspect is questioned without the presence of a lawyer. Denied bail, Woodland can comfort himself with English-language books, a Bible and American-style meals but no cigarettes, TV or air conditioning in heat that often tops 100[degrees]F. He isn’t allowed to speak or write to friends and family. His mother, Arlene Jordan, who works in the engineering-services department at Fort Eustis, the U.S. Army base in Hampton Roads, Va., says she used to chat with her son every week by phone but hasn’t communicated with him since his arrest. “Let’s just say he is very far away from home,” she tells TIME. He may be there for a long time. The African American is charged with raping a young Japanese woman in the early-morning hours of June 29 and, if found guilty, could spend up to 15 years in a Japanese prison.

To the rest of the world, the central question of the trial may be simple: Did Woodland rape the woman, or didn’t he? But in Okinawa, the already murky case has been churned into a raging whirl by nationalist politics, screaming media, a half-century of dammed-up local grief and–roiling beneath it all–an undercurrent of racism.

Okinawa hates America, and Okinawa loves America. Okinawa is in fact so American that it can appear deceptively like home to the 25,203 U.S. servicemen stationed on its 38 U.S. military facilities. Reminders of Uncle Sam abound–America Mart, America Hotel and Club America. A two-story emporium called American Depot stands in the shadow of a giant Ferris wheel emblazoned with a Coca-Cola logo. Even at traditional matsuri, or summer festivals, children wave cotton candy, shirtless skateboarders do stunts on open walkways and women in shorts and bikini tops lick jewel-colored snow cones.

Tourists and dream seekers from the Japanese mainland flock to the archipelago’s 60 tropical islands–called Okinawa, like the main island–precisely for its slice of red, white and blue. The biggest draws, especially for Japanese women, are the real live Americans. Amejo is local slang for girls who love Americans, but amejo can be found anywhere in Japan where Americans hang out. However, ground zero for amejo and their kokujo subculture is Okinawa.

Kokujo (girls who like black men) paint their skin cocoa, weave their hair in cornrows, dress like Lil’ Kim–all the better to attract the prime catch, the black military man. In a country notorious for its disdain for people of color–pale skin has traditionally been the highest mark of beauty–the emergence of a subculture fetishizing blacks raises numerous issues, from the proliferation and power of global image peddlers like MTV to very basic questions of racial and sexual identity.

But stereotypes swing the other way too. The image of the geisha still pervades Western ideas of Japanese women. Among servicemen, the gaggles of pretty Japanese girls are a big reason that Okinawa ranks high on the “dream sheet,” the list of desired stations for enlisted men, which usually includes Hawaii and the bases closest to their hometowns. Demetrius Young, 27, a black Marine corporal from Miami, has been stationed in Okinawa just a week and already: “I loooove Okinawa. Why? The ladies, they’re all beee-yooo-tiful.” There’s a difference between viewing the ladies as delectable temptations, though, and seeing them as a free buffet course. “A young, dumb guy can get to thinking they’re there for the taking,” says Ray Fernandez, 33, a black former serviceman with 15 years in Okinawa.

Both racism and sexism are relevant because they may dictate this case. Still, in the days immediately following the rape charge, most news outlets didn’t report the race of the accused. Some Western journalists did, but they didn’t note that the accuser was almost certainly a kokujo and that the nightclub culture around the Okinawa bases is almost as segregated as the Jim Crow South. When off duty, most military personnel tend to congregate according to race. The clubs that black servicemen frequent are also kokujo haunts. Of course, for a kokujo to say she was there to meet a man is not proof of consent. In the U.S. today, a woman’s lifestyle and sexual history aren’t relevant in such cases. In Japan, they can invalidate rape charges altogether. Given what is known about the events surrounding the incident, the case against Timothy Woodland may never have led to his indictment if he were a Japanese man.

On Thursday night, June 28, the action in Okinawa is on the third floor of a building in a candy-colored open-air mall called the American Village. A pink-and-blue neon sign shows where everyone is going: 3F, a bar and restaurant with a Southeast Asian theme. A couple of hundred people are already there, drawn by $3 cocktails and reggae and hip-hop tunes. It’s so crowded that manager Jeff Short has abandoned his tiki-hut office to help behind the bar. The crowd is familiar, mostly female Japanese partyers and U.S. servicemen. Many of the girls dress alike–stiletto heels or sneakers, low-slung capris and halter tops, a spray of body glitter. (Short now says he doesn’t recall a diminutive woman with white sneakers, a red sundress, brown-tinted hair and a butterfly tattoo on her shoulder.) Others do.

For about an hour the woman dances and drinks with a black American, a former serviceman who is an Okinawa resident. She tells him she moved to Okinawa a month ago and is working at a hospital. Her American boyfriend is in the U.S., she continues. When she and the ex-serviceman decide to leave together, the American says something to a friend about money–“13[cents],” to be exact. The woman misunderstands him and fumes, “I do not look 13.” She abruptly returns to the bar.

Later, outside, the rejected former serviceman sees the woman hand in hand with a tall black man with a buzz cut. They are heading into the parking lot. He calls to them: “She ain’t drunk, she’s acting.” The girl glares at him and says, “F___ you.” The pair walk off and slip into the back seat of a sedan. It’s 2 a.m.

Police reports are sketchy about what happened next, but a Japanese weekly, the Shukan Bunshun, reports that the woman climbed out of the car when her seatmate became too aggressive. She got about 60 ft. away from the car when the American caught up with her. A few moments later, a Marine friend who was planning to drive the woman home came looking for her. He found her face down on the hood of a station wagon, a black man having intercourse with her from behind. When the Marine called out, the man zipped up and hopped into a car driven by his friends. The vehicle’s license plate, eyewitnesses say, bore the letter Y–signifying a military vehicle. At 2:32 a.m. local police received a call from the woman’s friend. Soon, blue-uniformed officers were pacing the parking lot. Short, the 3F bar manager, had just closed up and, puzzled by the crowd gathering outside, asked a serviceman, “What’s up?” The answer: a rape.

The incident sparked a crisis in U.S.-Japan relations. For four days after an arrest warrant was issued on July 2, the U.S. refused to hand Woodland over to Okinawa police, infuriating Okinawans and many other Japanese. Under the Status of Forces Agreement between Japan and the U.S.–the so-called SOFA, which dictates service members’ legal rights in Japan–those charged with a criminal offense are protected from incarceration by the Japanese until after they are indicted. Among the reasons for this is the long, isolating detention period, which the U.S. considers overly harsh. It was only after a 12-year-old schoolgirl was raped by three servicemen in 1995 that the U.S. bent its objections and promised to consider handing over suspects prior to indictment in cases of “heinous” crimes. Okinawa had been transformed by the 1995 attack, and rage against the presence of U.S. forces overflowed into the streets. Victims formed support groups; students learned to rally. Over every incident, big and small, that followed, politicians pelted the U.S. military with demands that it impose curfews, change treaties and shut down bases. The three men are serving seven-year sentences in a special Japanese prison ward for U.S. servicemen south of Tokyo–in which Woodland will probably be placed if he loses his case. After serving their sentence, the men will receive dishonorable discharges and be returned to the U.S.

Incensed over the perceived foot dragging in the Woodland case, hundreds of Okinawans protested. The uproar reached all the way to President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, upsetting their first summit meeting in Washington. The U.S. Air Force eventually gave Woodland up. He was arrested by the Japanese on July 6, a week after the incident, and indicted on rape charges 15 days later.

To read the Okinawa papers now, you would think the main mission of U.S. military personnel there is to engage in crime sprees. A closer look at the police blotter tells a different story. According to the Okinawa prefectural government, U.S. military personnel were responsible for 5,006 crimes between 1972 and 2001. That means of the 290,814 crimes committed in Okinawa during the 29-year period, 1.7% were perpetrated by a group that comprised 4% of the population. Rapes and sexual assaults by servicemen grab the biggest headlines. Last year 2,260 rapes nationwide were reported to authorities. Statisticians don’t break out how many were committed by foreigners, but this much is known: of those rapes, 267 occurred in Osaka, 260 in Tokyo and 29 in Okinawa.

It does not bode well for Woodland that his case has become a focal point of U.S.-Japan relations or that the Japanese media continue to cover every foolish escapade by U.S. servicemen. And there are many such episodes. During a single week in late July, one U.S. serviceman in Okinawa fired a BB gun at pizza-delivery boys, another tipped over a stranger’s motor scooter, another set fire to a car, and a Marine lance corporal was sentenced to five years for arson attacks on stores.

The crimes haven’t all been petty. U.S. troops of all races have committed atrocities in Okinawa, particularly sexual assaults. In the years following World War II, locals say, rapes by U.S. servicemen were shockingly rampant–but the U.S. military, which governed the islands then, has no record of any such crimes. In more recent years, the list of crimes makes shameful reading for any American: July 2000, a 19-year-old Marine is charged with molesting a 14-year-old girl; January 2000, a Marine lifts the skirt of a 16-year-old to take a picture of her underwear. But the crimes committed by blacks are particularly noted and remembered by Okinawans, and few seemed surprised when the three servicemen who raped the 12-year-old girl turned out to be black.

“When a suspect is black and from the military, people here assume he must be guilty,” says Annette Eddie-Callagain, an African-American lawyer. “Meanwhile, whenever something happens, the rest of us think, Oh, please, don’t let him be black.” Eddie-Callagain and two Japanese lawyers represent Woodland, who has pleaded not guilty and argues that the sex was consensual. Eddie-Callagain admits the politically charged atmosphere and the Japanese judicial system stack the odds against her client. “Here you’re guilty until proved innocent,” says Eddie-Callagain, who returned to Okinawa in 1995 to set up an independent practice after leaving the Air Force. “In Japan the criminal-justice system is run by prosecutors,” she says. “Defense lawyers are just bystanders.”

Though prosecutors here don’t discuss cases before or during trial, their strongest evidence appears to be that Woodland admits to having sex with the woman. But in Japan, winning a rape case is never a cinch–particularly for a woman who admits to having an active sex life, which can scuttle her credibility. “The defendant’s lawyer can use the number of a victim’s sexual partners as evidence,” says Yukiko Tsunoda, a lawyer in Shizuoka. “To win a rape case, a plaintiff often must prove violence, a threat to her life, and that she resisted with all her might.”

Because of her presumed lifestyle, the woman who accuses Woodland has taken a beating in the court of public opinion. In late July she sent a letter to the media begging reporters to stop hounding her and her friends. “There is victim bashing both in the press and by the public,” says Suzuyo Takazato, founder of the Rape Emergency Intervention Counseling Center in Okinawa and an Okinawan assemblywoman. Makiko Tanaka, Japan’s female Foreign Minister, is reported to have said to colleagues there must have been “something wrong with the girl, going out so late at night.” Old-fashioned attitudes impose shame and blame on the victim. Studies say this limits the number of rapes reported to the police to between 1% and 10% of the actual incidents.

If the public is unsympathetic to the woman, her amejo and kokujo peers are downright harsh. Some gossip that the victim dated the defendant; others speculate that her friends shamed her into calling it a rape. “We amejo feel the girl was in the wrong,” says Maki Oshiro, 27, sitting in a semicircular booth at a hip-hop club called Else, one of a number of spots frequented by black U.S. servicemen. “She probably didn’t know how to behave. We’re here because we know it’s where the Americans gather. These guys aren’t scary. We know how to handle them.” She mentions an English woman murdered last summer outside Tokyo; a Japanese businessman is being held on murder charges. “See? Japanese guys can be scarier.”

The amejo and kokujo agree that the incident has brought unwanted critical attention to them and their habits. “Amejo is a derogatory term, isn’t it?” says Hitomi Murayama, 24. “It’s just another way for mainland Japanese to look down on Okinawa. They don’t understand that we Okinawans are naturally friendly and outgoing–and that includes toward American servicemen.”

The U.S. military establishment knew it couldn’t plunk a herd of young men down in a foreign locale and expect them to act like saints. Yasutaka Oshiro, a sociology professor at Okinawa International University, has researched the history of the entertainment districts around the U.S. bases. “The zones were created by U.S. officials following World War II to counter the problem of U.S. troops raping local women with abandon,” he explains. Poor unmarried local girls were corralled into prostitution. The sex market in a town called Koza outside the gates of Kadena Air Force Base roared during the Vietnam War, when thousands of troops bivouacked in Okinawa on their way to and from the war zone. The trade has simmered down, but new arrivals on base are still initiated at a Koza bar featuring live sex on stage.

Nightlife, like military service, was segregated back then. One area in Koza was designated for blacks and another for whites. Today, while the party spots are still split by race–whites head toward bars, blacks congregate in hip-hop clubs–it’s a mixed bunch that piles into the “loser cruisers,” military-run buses for the poor sods stationed on remote camps that take them to bars on base like the Globe & Anchor. But the guys playing arcade games and pool are white; the ones on the dance floor are black.

The girls are here too, signed in at base checkpoints by their friends and boyfriends. They’re a tough bunch. Around 2 a.m. one recent night, a fight breaks out between three amejo and an American woman. A slap fest ensues before massive security guards in yellow T shirts toss the Japanese women out. The fight, of course, is over men. American men are thought to be kinder, more expressive and more romantic than Japanese men. “Really, I can’t remember the last time I went out with a Japanese guy,” says Yoko Taniguchi, 30, an accountant with newly braided cornrows and tight FUBU capris. She is dancing at a club called Slum. “American men–they make much better boyfriends.” Some women fall in love. A few desire marriage and a life abroad. For others, it’s just about sex. “It’s just asobi [play],” says one kokujo. Another blames Japanese men. “They don’t know how to talk, they don’t know how to ask you out, and they certainly don’t know what to do in bed,” she says. “American guys–black guys–do.”

Back at the American Village a month after the incident, a matsuri is in full swing. But across the street, in front of a billboard for the movie Pearl Harbor, is a group from the local Ryukyu University. The students wave banners and shout hoarsely into bullhorns: “We oppose American bases on Okinawa! We oppose President Bush! We oppose violence to women! We will not rest till the bases go!”

At dusk outside the gates of Kadena Air Force Base, neon signs flicker on as servicemen begin to congregate, poking around in the clothing stores, buying yakitori on sticks from street vendors and horsing around. Some of the men later make their way to the dance clubs, others to the billiard bars. As midnight approaches, carloads of women pull into the parking lots nearby. They fix their lipstick in the rearview mirrors and tease out their hair as if according to some military instruction manual. It’s as if they’re going into battle.

–With reporting by Brian Bennett/Hong Kong, Toko Sekiguchi and Hiroko Tashiro/Tokyo

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