BORDER TOWN STORIES: Exploring Okinawa’s multicultural mishmash

A previous recipient of a Fulbright grant to Japan, author Akemi Johnson has written for outlets such as The Nation and National Public Radio, and contributed an essay to volume 2 of “Hapa Japan.” She spoke with Nichi Bei Weekly about her forthcoming book, “Night in the American Village: Women in the Shadows of the U.S. Military Bases in Okinawa,” which will be released by The New Press in June.

Akemi Johnson. courtesy Akemi Johnson

Nichi Bei Weekly: How did you come to write about women who live in the “border towns” that surround U.S. military bases on Okinawa?
Akemi Johnson:
I first became interested in Okinawa in college, studying abroad in Kyoto. I learned about a school there specifically for biracial American-Okinawan kids. As a mixed-race Japanese American, I was fascinated by this idea, and was able to travel there for a summer to conduct research and volunteer as a teacher. Once in Okinawa, I became more and more taken with the whole island. Much of Okinawa is a multicultural mishmash, due to the blend of Okinawan, Japanese, and American influences. In the neighborhoods around the many U.S. military bases, I found the most obvious clashing and combining of cultures, which resonated with me personally. Soon, my research expanded from the school to these “border towns” and the people in them, especially the women who interact with the U.S. military, often in surprising ways. 

NBW: What are these border towns like?
AJ:
In the neighborhood where I lived, outside a U.S. Marine Corps base, traditional wooden Okinawan homes sat beside concrete apartment buildings, down the street from bars with names like Pub U.S.A. Many businesses catered to U.S. servicemembers, including strip clubs and salsa bars, while others sold used American furniture, imported American clothes, and fusion food like taco rice. Every morning we woke to the reveille sounding from the base; in the evening we heard the American national anthem. Active-duty and retired American GIs lived alongside Okinawans and transplants from mainland Japan. The walkways along the beach were crowded with a mix of these people.

NBW: And in terms of your research, what did you learn about how the women in these border towns interact with the U.S. military?
AJ:
The story we most often hear is about victimization. U.S. military violence against local women is definitely a major issue; beyond the high-profile incidents, like the murder of a 20-year-old local in 2016 by an ex-Marine, there is a long history of sexual assault, much of it unreported, since the Battle of Okinawa. But what may be surprising is that many women in Okinawa don’t have a victim relationship with the U.S. military. Instead, they choose to actively engage with the military presence, either for their own benefit or to fight for its removal. These are women who date and marry U.S. servicemen, who work on and around the bases, and who protest against them.

NBW: Did you encounter multiracial families that resulted from the romantic pairings of local women and U.S. servicemen?
AJ:
Yes, many families. Again, the popular stereotype is tragic: the left-behind Amerasian. I did hear of many U.S. servicemen who left their children in Okinawa. The current governor Denny Tamaki is the son of a Marine whom he never met. But there are so many other kinds of stories, too. Many U.S. servicemen retire on the island and remain in their children’s lives. Some families move back and forth between the United States and Japan. Many “hafu” live in the borderlands communities around the bases, able to experience both on- and off-base worlds. Others live as any Okinawan does and have to fight assumptions that they know English, have a particular life story, or identify a certain way.

NBW: Are there any specific hafu individuals you met who feature prominently in your book, or whose life stories you found compelling in some way?
AJ:
One chapter of my book focuses on the everyday experiences of mixed-race American-Okinawan people. There were two groups people talked about: “American hafu” and “Okinawan hafu.” American hafu grew up on or around the bases, speaking English and Japanese. A lot of these bilinguals end up using their skills in jobs working between the bases and local communities. One man uses his taco shop outside a base to try to build community and bridge the divide between servicemembers and Okinawans. A woman I met manages a store on base, always translating between local and American staff. This is the kind of essential, overlooked work that makes the bases run smoothly. Okinawan hafu grew up in local communities speaking Japanese. Byron Figa is one well-known figure who has embraced his Okinawan identity, mastering the dying indigenous language and fighting stereotypes that he should speak English because of his American background.

NBW: What’s Byron’s story?
AJ:
As he explained it to me, Byron grew up in Okinawa, without knowing his American father and facing bullying because of his mixed heritage. Other kids called him “American” or generic American names like “Johnson.” As a young adult Byron tried living in the United States, but didn’t feel like he belonged there. Then, back in Okinawa, he joined a movement to revive traditional Okinawan culture. Eventually, he became the self-proclaimed “Mr. Okinawa.” When I met him, he was doing Okinawan cultural performances, playing on people’s assumptions. Byron may look white, but on stage he speaks Okinawan and is sure to say he doesn’t know English. The message is that physical appearance doesn’t tell you anything about a person’s language or identity. His story is also told in more detail in Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu’s book, “When Half Is Whole.”

NBW: Overall, did you glean any other messages about language or identity from researching and writing your book?
AJ:
U.S. military bases abroad affect local people in profound and unexpected ways. Many people use the bases, and the American culture they import, to reinvent themselves or express otherwise-repressed parts of their identities. At the same time, I met American servicemen who kind of lose themselves in Okinawan culture, learning the language and local traditions. There may be tall fences surrounding the bases, but, like all borders, they’re porous. We might think of these situations in terms of Us versus Them, but we’re all much more mixed-up than we imagine.

Johnson will talk about “Night in the American Village” at Time Tested Books at 1114 21st Street (between L and K streets) in Sacramento June 20 at 7 p.m.; at Book Passage Corte Madera at 51 Tamal Vista Blvd. in Corte Madera on June 28 at 7 p.m.; and at Eastwind Books of Berkeley at 2066 University Ave. in Berkeley June 29 at 3 p.m. Visit akemijohnson.com for more information.

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