Ladies’ Night: Circling the Bases on Okinawa

Akemi Johnson

[W]e careened south toward Okinawa’s capital city, Naha, after eleven on a Saturday night. On the left, the U.S. military base fences flashed, silver and barbed wire. On the right were convenience stores and used American furniture shops with names like Graceland and U.S.A. Collectibles.

Eve turned up the American hip hop on the stereo. Ladies’ night, she exclaimed. Tonight she might meet her future husband.

Twenty-nine, Eve was an Okinawan receptionist who lived with her parents in Nago City, on the northern part of the island. She had gotten her American nickname in college, when her friend had pointed at her and said, You are Eve. She liked it, and it stuck. Her friends used it, while her family and coworkers used her birth name. Eve was sleepy-eyed and cool, soft-spoken and sweet. Her skin was pale, freckled around her nose; her friends teased her about this whiteness, because Eve dated only black American men.

Me, I like the black people, she’d told me. I never had a Japanese guy.

She wasn’t sure why. At first she had liked white men, but then she had switched to blacks and stuck with them. They were just more attractive. When she went out with friends, they went to places kokujin went.

That night in December 2008 we were headed for Saicolo, a hip hop club on Naha’s International Street. Eve was wearing a flowy red top with cut-outs along the sleeves, black lace-up pants, and heels. A pair of sunglasses served as a headband in her long hair. Her friend Maiko was behind the wheel; with her free hand, Maiko drank from a can and smoked cigarettes and toyed with her cell phone. She had a face that was at once pretty and hard, mean.

Onegaishimasu, Eve pleaded, asking her friend to please drive carefully as we tore around a bend. Inside, the car was cluttered with knickknacks — beads and a marijuana leaf pendant handing from the rearview mirror, an unsettling plastic hand and skull on the dashboard, a stuffed SpongeBob SquarePants attached to the passenger seat visor.

In Okinawa, there’s a word for women like Eve: kokujo, women who like black men. The umbrella term is amejo, women who like Americans. Hakujo like white men and spajo prefer Latinos. The terms are derogatory, mostly; I had never heard someone use one to describe herself. An amejo is the other girl at the club — similar, maybe, but less classy or genuine or smart. An amejo is a rival. An amejo is a trashy bitch.

 The news we hear about Okinawa, the string of subtropical islands that comprises Japan’s southernmost prefecture, tends to be about rapes and protests. This fall, the deployment of twelve MV-22 Ospreys galvanized long-standing opposition to the U.S. military bases, which take up nearly nineteen percent of the main island. Tens of thousands of Okinawans gathered to protest these controversial military aircraft, which, with their spotty safety record, seemed like civilian casualties waiting to happen on this densely packed island. In 2004, a military helicopter had crashed into Okinawa International University, miraculously hurting no one but spewing its wreckage over the campus and nearby residences.

While the Osprey protests flared, two American sailors allegedly assaulted and gang raped a local woman in October. The mayor of Naha City and the Okinawa Times likened the people’s growing anger and resentment to magma, waiting to erupt. The military responded by instituting a country-wide curfew for military personnel. Then, a drunken airman out past curfew broke in to the apartment of an Okinawan family and punched a junior high school student, asleep in his bed, in the face. The magma rose. Outside base gates, local police tangled with demonstrators, including elderly Okinawans demanding relief from abuses they had endured since the war.

A few years ago, I spent a year on the island researching the multicultural borderlands outside the bases, which have dominated Okinawa’s landscape since World War II. During the Battle of Okinawa, at the close of the war, as many as 140,000 civilians, more than one-fourth of the prefecture’s population, were killed — some starved, some murdered, some forced into group “suicides” by the Imperial Japanese Army.

Post-war, the United States occupied Okinawa until 1972, twenty years longer than the rest of Japan. Today, Okinawa hosts about half of the 50,000 U.S. service members stationed in the country, a gross disproportion considering the prefecture constitutes only 0.6 percent of the national landmass. Four branches of service are present — the Navy, Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force — a rare occurrence, I’ve been told.

In Okinawa, I lived in Ginowan, across the street from the Marine Corps base Camp Foster. Farther south, down Route 58, was the notorious Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, squeezed into the middle of the city and still untouched after a 2006 deal to move it to a less populated area of the island, and redeploy 8,000 marines to Guam. Outrage over the 1995 gang rape of a 12-year-old had led to the agreement, but, stalled by political gridlock, local opposition, and financial concerns, years passed and nothing changed.

Every morning and evening in my neighborhood, the taps rang out from Foster, washing us in the American national anthem, then the Japanese, a song that seemed so sad and slow and short for a while I didn’t know what it was. At the foot of my five-story apartment building were clusters of traditional Okinawan homes, their dark, peaked roofs fitting together like tiles below the surrounding concrete. Among them were snapshots from another time: cisterns collecting rainwater, doors sliding open and shut. A stooped woman with her hair in a topknot hanging laundry on a line.

Two blocks away was Chichi’s Gentleman’s Club (“American Style”). Silhouettes of women with arched backs beckoned servicemen inside. Below that were Nashville Bar (“Mechanical Bull”) and Pitsters Sports Bar & Grill (“50 Cent Chicken Wings”). Next door was Crazy Horse and down the street was Pub U.S.A. There were Mary Jane’s Rock Bar and La Pachanga Latin House, $1 Tube Shots and $5 Irish Car Bombs.

Along the shock of turquoise water, a few blocks to the west, the air smelled of fried food and garlic. Old Okinawan fishermen in rubber boots and baseball caps waded in the surf. Tanned blondes in sports bras ran alongside Okinawan power-walkers hidden beneath track suits and towels, and middle-aged American men taught their kids to ride bicycles: Don’t stop, don’t be weak. One early morning, I jogged past a group of Okinawan junior high school boys, exercising in their gray and white baseball uniforms. For a moment, I was enveloped by the scent of clean laundry.

Around here, many people were more pragmatic about the bases. They’re not going anywhere, Americans and Okinawans told me. The “keystone of the Pacific?” No way. This location is too central, strategic. And many people weren’t sure they wanted the bases to leave. They worked on base. Their fathers worked on base. Their off-base businesses catered to American customers. They spoke English and liked to shop at the cavernous PX. They dated American men.

In Okinawa, I met a lot of people — locals and retired American service members and their families — whose worlds, whose lives, had always been this mishmash of Okinawa, the U.S., and Japan. The combination was fraught, its past bloody and its present unjust, but it was unique and familiar. Removing the bases, easing the modern-day colonialism, demilitarizing the island: they were ideologically appealing notions, but, on a more everyday level, threatened to erase the home and culture many knew and loved.

We stopped to pick up Maiko’s friend Ayako, who wore towering platform sandals and a messy bun of bleached hair atop her head. She worked on Kadena Air Base, like Maiko, and spoke English naturally. Amid a story told in Japanese, she threw in English phrases like “He damn ugly.”

Camp Kinser passed on the left before the landscape turned urban, becoming more Osaka than American suburb. In Naha, we parked near a church off the freeway, across the street from the mammoth duty-free shopping mall. The women screamed that it was cold; the temperature was in the upper sixties. When I left my sweatshirt in the car, they shrieked.

Americans are tough, Eve said.

Eve had started dating Americans at age nineteen, when she was a student at Okinawa Christian Junior College. She and her friends hung around clubs, parks, and beaches and practiced speaking English with American guys. The men struck her as more attractive than local guys—the way they looked, acted, dressed, spoke English, put ladies first. American men had big hearts, like in Hollywood movies. To her, they were movie stars, perfect and romantic and thrilling.

She realized the truth — American men were “the real thing” — the hard way. In her early twenties, Eve dated a black marine for two years before he was relocated to North Carolina. They dated two more years long distance, and she went to see him there, her first time to the States. The country seemed okay. The military base was big and boring. Then she discovered he had another girlfriend. She was devastated, and they broke up. That had been her longest relationship. Since then, she had had trouble trusting men. Why do they lie to us? she wondered. Maybe she had to be stronger.

Meanwhile, approaching thirty, she worried about marriage. Pressure from her family didn’t help. At first, her parents had been horrified that she liked kokujin. Now they didn’t care: Just tell us if you have someone to marry, they said. Eve’s younger brother was getting married in a month, which was problematic, a reversal of order. You have a boyfriend? You have a boyfriend? he asked her. He wanted her to get married more than anyone. An employee of the Japanese Self Defense Air Force, he sometimes communicated with American service members; he didn’t care if she married one.

We arrived at the nightclub, which was down a flight of stairs, subterranean. As we walked in, I overheard a white guy trying to convince an Okinawan woman to leave with him. He was using all kinds of twisted logic and she was just smiling, not giving in, but maybe about to.

Inside, the DJ was playing Jermaine Dupri’s “Welcome to Atlanta” and the place was crowded with men. I spotted one Asian American guy but most of the patrons were black, like Eve had said, with a few white and Latino men here and there. Mixed in were also a handful of Okinawan and Japanese guys, stylish in their jaunty hats and sneakers.

Among the female club-goers, Okinawan and mainland Japanese, some women were strikingly beautiful, confident, at ease. Others were more homely, sticking to the perimeters, looking nervous but excited. Many of the women shared a similar style. So-called kokujo often take their dating preferences a step farther, transforming their appearances, mannerisms, and speech to some approximation of Black America. With deep tans and gold jewelry and slang words they try to slip toward another culture.

We waited in a winding line to get drinks that were free but weak. One in each hand, we descended to an area above the dance floor cluttered with small tables. Standing at one, we swallowed our screwdrivers, which tasted like watered-down orange juice. Ayako agreed she needed a real drink. In line for the bar again, she told me she had lived in Arizona for a couple years with an American boyfriend. They had broken up the month before, but still talked every day. The rest of the night she kept flipping up her black, bejeweled cell phone and staring at the screen. At one point it was on a MySpace page. She and he had broken up because he couldn’t come to Japan to live — visa issues. Since then, she had met a couple other guys.

The man in front of us turned around and asked how long we had been in Okinawa. He was short and white and young, wearing glasses.

Two months, I said. You?

One and a half.

He guessed we were marines, or military wives. Ayako waited a moment to tell him, grinning, I’m Japanese. She seemed happy he had thought she was American.

Do you like Okinawa? she asked him.

Yeah, but it’s haunted, he said. Okinawa is haunted.

Ayako nodded. It’s true, she said. There are so many haunted places.

When we neared the front of the line the man left wordlessly, without buying a drink.
Ayako and I did tequila shots. She bought us glasses of Orion beer, speaking to the Japanese bartender in English. Back at the table below, I asked Eve if she had seen any cute guys. She hadn’t.
Let’s dance, she said.

The dance floor, the bottom level of the terraced club, was packed and sweaty. Towering above us was a flashing screen, the music pounding. Men came up behind Eve and Ayako, swiveling into their asses. One grabbed my hand and tugged, his expression pleading. I shook my head. The daughter of a Japanese American mother and white American father, in Okinawa I never knew if people thought I was American or a local. As an adolescent, I would have hated that. Tequila buzzed through my limbs. The beat thudded in my chest. On this island, that kind of ambiguity made me feel at home.

Back up by the bar, we collapsed onto stools and watched the scene around us. In a small clearing a couple Japanese men were dancing, grinding against each other in some imitation of what the American men were doing with the Japanese women below. If these men were straight, there weren’t any women in the club for them: the women had come here to look for Americans.

They like the music, Eve explained, nodding to the Japanese men. They don’t like amejo like us. As she said the word, she giggled. She seemed to be referring to herself, her friends, all the women in the club.

It was the first time I had heard a woman wear the term with pride, a sense of belonging. When I had asked Eve, before, about the terms amejo and kokujo, she had laughed. No one called her those names, she’d said, but they probably thought them, especially Japanese men. And old people. She didn’t care.
The word suggested a slew of issues—objectifying those of another race, abandoning the conventions of your culture, chasing after something foreign in an attempt to escape yourself. Some Okinawans, fed up and bombarded by headlines, couldn’t help but associate the word with those rapes, and their larger political metaphor—the rape of Okinawa by the U.S., pimped out by Tokyo.

Amejo. Eve wanted a husband, but only a black American would do. Her English was limited and military life posed serious relationship challenges. The situation seemed destined for conflict, but it was her life. She shrugged and smiled and embraced it.

The Japanese men began dancing jerkily, like robots. An American came over and danced with them, clapping his hands in a fraternal way.

On the stool next to me, a white guy struck up a conversation, in simple, slow English. Can I tell you a secret, he said. I am a bad dancer. Maybe you can teach me.

I’m tired, I said.

I don’t believe you.

I assured him that I was, that I was about to leave. He thought I was Japanese. Ayako, standing behind him, raised her eyebrows and sneered at his back. I stifled a burst of laughter and rose to join her. As we walked out, Ayako muttered, He damn ugly, and my laughter erupted like magma.

In the car, heading north toward home, dawn not far away, Eve exclaimed something fast in Japanese—regret and frustration at not meeting anyone. Another night and no husband-to-be. She leaned her head back and was quiet until suddenly she announced she was going to puke. Maiko pulled over fast and, by the side of the road, Eve threw up the night’s cocktails. Maiko dropped some coins into a nearby vending machine and wordlessly handed her a bottle of water. Eve swished the taste out of her mouth and managed a smile. We drove into the brightening light.

 Note: Some names in this piece have been changed to respect individuals’ privacy.

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Akemi Johnson

Author's Bio

Akemi Johnson researched this essay as a Fulbright scholar in Okinawa. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Brown University, she is writing a book of creative nonfiction on these borderlands outside the island’s U.S. military bases. She lives in San Francisco.


Header photo by Fumihiko Ueno