Response: May/June 2020 Issue

Okinawa’s Long Struggle Against Militarism

United Methodist Women-supported seminar examines connections between war and violence against women.

Okinawa’s Long Struggle Against Militarism
United Methodist Women Regional Missionary the Rev. Hikari Chang, ctr., with participants in a seminar on women and militarization in Asia.

On an island torn by decades of war, there’s one small space dedicated to peace. Perched atop cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the island of Okinawa, the Cornerstone of Peace memorial park has row after row of black granite plinths bearing the names of over 241,000 people killed during the almost three-month-long Battle of Okinawa near the end of World War II. The names include those of Okinawan civilians, Japanese soldiers, U.S. and other Allied troops, as well as people from other nations who were on Okinawa and perished in the violence.

Tucked away in one corner, however, is a blank stone marker without names. It’s a memorial to the hundreds of Korean women who were forcibly brought to Okinawa as sex slaves and died in that final battle. In contrast, Korean men who died on Okinawa, after being forcibly brought as laborers, have their names inscribed on nearby stones. The Japanese military kept careful records of men and materiel yet didn’t bother to record the women’s names. Instead, they were given Japanese names. No one knew their real names.

Suzuyo Takazato believes the nameless women should be remembered.

“We don’t know who they were. There’s no official record of them. Women are used as a commodity during war, something to be consumed. But these were real women, not commodities. And they were an essential part of militarism, whether it’s the Japanese or U.S. military. We can’t forget them. If we do, then history will repeat itself again. If we forget them, they will be killed twice,” said Takazato, a Christian peace activist on Okinawa.

After studying at United Methodist Women-supported Harris Memorial College in the Philippines, Takazato has worked for decades with victims of sexual violence around U.S. military bases on Okinawa. She’s the founder of Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence.

Takazato served as a resource person for a 2019 gathering in which women from throughout the region met in Okinawa to discuss the connections between women and militarism in Asia. The gathering was sponsored by United Methodist Women and the Wesley Foundation in Tokyo and coordinated by the Rev. Hikari Chang, a Tokyo-based regional missionary for United Methodist Women.

At a time of growing militarization in the region, Chang says it’s essential that women—especially women from countries in conflict with each other—work together to construct an alternative future.

“Asian women have common challenges, common hopes and a common vision for peace both here in Asia and around the world. But history has often divided us and kept us apart. You can’t dream and act together unless you can sit and listen to one another. Many of the Japanese women in the seminar have never talked face to face with a woman from Korea. Many have never met a Filipina. So it’s past time for them to unlearn their misunderstandings of other cultures and other women,” she said.

“The more they understand themselves and their own histories—histories characterized by male domination and violence—the better they can build a different, more just world, breaking free from history as it’s defined only by the most powerful. They can build a culture of peace that cares for the most vulnerable among us.”

A history of foreign control

The Ryukyu archipelago, more commonly known as Okinawa, was for centuries a generally peaceful kingdom, actively trading with both Japan and China. There was openness to outsiders and a rejection of military attitudes as antithetical to good relations with other peoples. Women held positions of authority within the royal household and government. Then in 1609 the Satsuma clan of southern Japan invaded Okinawa and carried the Ryukyu king away. Women lost many of their privileges in the system imposed by the new rulers.

In 1879, Okinawa was formally incorporated into Japan, becoming the Okinawa prefecture, or state. Brutal cultural changes came quickly. The Japanese educational system was imposed, people were ordered to speak only Japanese and hairstyles and clothing changed. Women were prohibited from getting tattoos. Even the process for choosing who you married was changed. Resentment and bitterness toward colonization by the Japanese grew steadily over the decades, reaching its height during World War II, when military leaders in Tokyo decided to turn Okinawa into a shield to protect the main islands from the looming U.S. invasion, which planned to use Okinawa for the first landing of troops before moving on toward Tokyo.

Okinawa was flooded with Japanese imperial soldiers, committed to sacrificing Okinawa to defend the homeland. Speaking the Okinawan language was prohibited because the soldiers feared that local residents could be spies. Incidents of sexual violence and rape skyrocketed, and the military imported hundreds of sexual slaves, so-called comfort women, mostly from Korea. According to Takazato, 145 official brothels were established, euphemistically dubbed “comfort stations,” where Japanese soldiers kicked local residents out of their homes then subdivided the bedrooms into smaller cubicles where the women were forced to service soldiers.

Civilians were conscripted into the war effort. Young boys became cannon fodder, and schoolgirls were forced to serves as nurses, often working in dark caves where they cared for wounded soldiers. They were indoctrinated with an intense fear of U.S. soldiers and were convinced that Allied troops would rape them and turn them into comfort women. When it became clear that Japan was about to lose the bloody Battle of Okinawa, hundreds of the girls committed suicide, many jumping from a cliff near today’s Cornerstone of Peace monument.

When the Japanese were finally defeated, civilians who survived the battle were herded into detention camps by U.S. troops. With the local population out of the way, the United States seized large sections of land and began constructing military bases.

“When we complain today about the noise and pollution and crime and other impacts of the U.S. bases on the neighborhoods, houses and schools that surround them, the military says that the Okinawan people chose to live alongside the base. But that’s not true,” said Takazato. “The U.S. military removed the houses and schools and covered over the vegetable fields in order to construct the bases. When people were released after a year in the concentration camps and came home, many couldn’t find their homes. They were gone. Instead there was an iron fence and a sign telling them to keep out.”

Hiding women’s shoes

With the U.S. military occupation came sexual abuse and rape, not to mention impunity.

“Soldiers would come to a village and just break down the doors to grab the women and rape them. If a husband tried to protect his wife from being raped, he would be killed. Women would hide, or they would dress like boys. Women would hide in a closet or in the floor. Families would hide the women’s shoes, so that when soldiers would come to the door of a house, they could point to the shoes and say, ‘See, no women’s shoes.’ In some villages, they would hang an artillery shell casing from a tree, and when soldiers approached they would ring it like a bell to warn the women to hide,” Takazato said.

At one point, Takazato and other activists started compiling a list of U.S. military crimes against women during the postwar period. It’s page after page of somber reading. There was frequent use of knives and guns to subdue women. Gang rape by soldiers was common. One scholar estimates that 10,000 Okinawan women were raped during the immediate postwar period, but very few cases resulted in punishment, as soldiers were largely immune to arrest by Okinawan police, and complaints to U.S. authorities seldom produced any action.

In at least one case in 1945, frustrated Okinawans took matters into their own hands. In the village of Katsuyama, villagers grew tired of U.S. soldiers showing up every weekend to rape local women. The soldiers were so confident that no one would resist that they quit bringing along weapons. Then one weekend villagers ganged up and beat three soldiers to death, hiding their bodies in a local cave. Fearing retaliation from the U.S. military, villagers swore one another to secrecy. Their secret held for more than five decades. In 1998, after word leaked out, local authorities recovered the remains from the cave and turned them over to the U.S. military.

Takazato says local leaders, remembering the example of the comfort women during World War II, decided to intentionally expand the formal sex industry around U.S. bases as a way to protect civilian women from assault. Okinawa had always had a small prostitution district, but the island now enlarged it, building dozens of brothels just outside the base gates. Pimps recruited girls from poor families to come work there. Takazato says that by formalizing the sex industry, Okinawa assured a steady flow of money from U.S. soldiers, though little of it stayed in the hands of the women who did the work.

Okinawa played a similar role during the U.S. war in Vietnam, but despite the soldiers’ easy access to brothels, cases of rape and violent assault again soared. Several women were strangled to death. Takazato then worked as a social worker, and many of her clients were prostituted women.

“By the time the Vietnam War wound down, many of them were in a mental hospital or a women’s shelter. Almost all were poor. Many had been raped at some point, and I always asked them if they reported the rape to the police. They all told me no, because the police always refused to help,” Takazato said.

Still occupied

Such abuse contributed to a growing movement to end the U.S. occupation of Okinawa, and in 1972 the United States turned Okinawa over to Japan. Yet hopes that reversion, as it was called, would lead to increased Okinawan control of their own territory were quickly dashed.

“One of the anticipated benefits of reversion, the removal of all U.S. military bases from Okinawa, did not take place. The fervent desire of Okinawan citizens to regain possession of their own family land [was] ignored,” Takazato wrote in an article that appeared in the May 1991 issue of response magazine.

Not only did the bases remain after 1972, but as the United States went on to get involved in new wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, military activity on Okinawa increased, with a corresponding rise in sexual violence as well as noise and pollution, other products of the military presence.

“Most people in Okinawa feel we’ve been forced to be part of U.S. wars, whether we like it or not,” said Nariko Oshiro, a travel writer on the island who helped guide the seminar participants through visits to historic sites. “We’re still occupied, but with the active collaboration of the Japanese government. Every aspect of life in Okinawa is influenced by the U.S. bases here.”

According to Takazato, the crimes against women happen outside the bases. “The soldiers can travel unimpeded wherever they wish, but we Okinawa citizens are blocked from going on their bases. That means that the whole of Okinawa is effectively their territory,” she said.

As opposition to the U.S. presence grew, Filipina women were brought to Okinawa to take the place of Okinawan women in the brothels, underscoring the transnational nature of the sexual abuse and trafficking that accompany military expansion. Their working conditions were often grimmer than those of the Okinawan women they replaced.

“The bar owners kept their passports and locked the doors to keep the women from leaving. The owners retained most of the women’s earnings to pay the fees to the agencies and recruiters. The women were treated like a commodity,” said Takazato, who got to know many of the women through her presence as a social worker.

Yet resistance to the military on Okinawa also moved beyond national borders, as Takazato and other activists developed links of solidarity with peacemakers elsewhere. In some places, such as the Philippines and the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, citizens were successful in forcing the closure of U.S. military bases.

Chita Framo, a United Methodist deaconess in the Philippines, also participated in the seminar. She says it was women who played the key role in closing major U.S. military bases there in the 1990s.

“Where there is a military base, there is also prostitution, and women suffer. In my country, when women were raped by U.S. soldiers and the men were identified and brought to trial and found guilty, instead of going to prison in the Philippines, the soldiers were taken out of the country by the U.S. embassy. That abuse and impunity, happening over and over, was an outrage that encouraged women to speak up and demand the closure of the bases,” Framo said.

A landmark assault

In 1995, a 12-year-old Okinawa girl was abducted by three U.S. servicemen in a car. They bound her hands, eyes and mouth with duct tape. She was raped and dumped out of the vehicle on the side of the road. Her assailants—two U.S. Marines and a sailor—had rented the car inside the base, purchased duct tape and condoms, and left the base with the purpose of abducting and raping a woman.

Although not unusual on Okinawa, the case garnered international attention because it took place during the 4th United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing, where violence against women was declared a violation of human rights. The young victim also pressed charges.

Comments by U.S. Navy Admiral Richard Macke, the commander of United States Pacific Command at the time of the attack, underscored the sexual abuse inherent in military presence. “I think it was absolutely stupid,” Macke stated in a press conference. “I have said several times: for the price they paid to rent the car, they could have had a girl,” meaning a prostitute. His remarks were widely condemned as insensitive, and Macke was removed from his post and forced into early retirement.

Because of massive street protests, the men were eventually tried and convicted, and they spent several years in a Japanese prison. The United States also agreed to consider handing suspects over to the Japanese before an indictment if the severity of the alleged crime warranted it. That agreement was hashed out in an emergency meeting between U.S. President Bill Clinton and Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, after the people of Okinawa placed a full-page ad in The New York Times decrying the rape and other aspects of the U.S. bases in Okinawa.

A year after the assault, the people of Okinawa went to the polls in a special referendum, voting 10-to-1 to reduce the U.S. military presence. Yet initial promises by the two governments failed to materialize, and instead the people of Okinawa were eventually told that the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which is surrounded by the city of Ginowan, would be relocated to Henoko, an environmentally sensitive coastal area in the northeast of Okinawa.

For more than two decades since, the people of Okinawa have protested against the base relocation. Every time a truck with landfill to dump in Oura Bay shows up at the base gates, police must remove protestors before it can enter. More than 70 percent of voters in a February 2019 referendum voted against the relocation plan. But the vote was not binding on the government in Tokyo, which continues with construction of the new base.

Many Okinawans believe that just as Tokyo sacrificed Okinawa at the end of World War II, the prefecture continues to bear an inordinate burden. Okinawa accounts for only 0.6 percent of the total land area of Japan, yet it is forced to host 70 percent of U.S. military facilities in the country.

Just as Christians, who are a small minority in Japan, have played a key role throughout the country in opposing the revision of Article 9 of the nation’s constitution, which renounces the right to use war to settle international disputes, so too have Christians on Okinawa played a key leadership role in calling for the removal of U.S. troops and weapons. Once a week, church members sing hymns at one of the base gates.

“Every week we gather to sing Gospel songs,” said Takazato. “We hope that the soldiers inside might hear a song they know and might recognize that the people of Okinawa have the same value as human beings and thus should not have our rights violated. So we sing to communicate. We read Scripture and sing hymns. People from all denominations show up.”

Hiding history

Participants in the seminar sought to learn from the history of Okinawa.

“If we don’t learn from it, it will just keep happening,” Chang said. “The history of this place is painful and ugly, but we need to face that a powerful nation like Japan did many horrible things to our neighbors that still affect life and politics today. But the young never learned that history. In Japan the schools don’t teach the history we’ve discussed here. They want to hide it. Our politicians have said they’re sorry once, and that’s supposedly enough. As an oppressor we want to forget history.

“Young women can be change agents if they’ll open their minds, raise their voices and act in different ways than the women of my generation. Even if we’re just talking about their role as mothers. What kind of values are they imparting to their sons? What happened to us that men at every convenience store in Japan buy porn magazines, even in front of children? Step by step, women can change the culture and society.”

Niki Sasaki, a 21-year-old student from Tokyo, says coming to Okinawa was an eye-opening experience.

“I realized here that I didn’t know much about the history of Japan, much less the history of Korea or the Philippines. We have been schooled to think we were victimized by the United States, but I heard here many testimonies of people who were victimized by Japan. I’ve been surprised by how people from Tokyo and people from Okinawa think so differently,” she said.

“In response to the history of the comfort women, all we hear in Tokyo is that Japan has already apologized. But what I heard from the Korean women here is that they don’t want only an apology, they want us to take responsibility for our actions. That pushes me to ask what I can do, not so much as a Japanese, but as myself, as a young woman, to break this awful history.”

In Young Cho came to the seminar from Seoul, where the 22-year-old works as an intern at the United Methodist Women-supported Scranton Women’s Leadership Center. She says learning about the history of Okinawa has made her rethink how she sees war.

“Sexual violence against women is widespread and it’s intentionally used as a tactic of war. I thought before that it was just some sort of hormone thing, but the more I learned, the more I came to understand that it’s a political tactic, and vulnerable, unarmed people pay the price,” she said.

Kozue Akibayashi, a researcher at Doshisha University in Kyoto and former president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, also spoke during the seminar, drawing connections between sexism and war.

“Violence against women is an unavoidable and essential part of the system of war,” she said. “The military can’t function without violence against women. There’s a systematic connection between misogyny and militarism and war.”

Akibayashi warned that militarization was intensifying in some parts of the region, including Japan under the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, an ardent proponent of revising Japan’s postwar constitution.

“This isn’t just about the U.S. military. We see it in the national military establishments in the region. It’s a militarization of patriarchy, and we’re seeing it globally, including in places like the Middle East and Russia. Patriarchy is resilient. It changes forms and survives. And although solidarity among women has challenged its appearance in several places, we haven’t succeeded in changing the overall trend,” Akibayashi said.

She celebrated the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 to Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad for what the Norwegian Nobel Committee called “their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict.” The Congolese gynecologist and the Yazidi rape survivor drew the world’s attention to rape as a tool of war.

“They have helped make clear that sexual violence is used to attack the enemy and destroy a community. It’s not just an ISIS strategy. It’s a very common strategy. This violence isn’t an African problem or an ISIS problem. It can be seen around the world, including in Okinawa,” she said.

Paul Jeffrey is a photojournalist and senior correspondent for response who lives in Oregon.

Posted or updated: 5/6/2020 12:00:00 AM