“Night in the American Village” Gives the Women of Okinawa a Voice

“Night in the American Village” Gives the Women of Okinawa a Voice

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Cover for Night in the American Village in front of a distorted Okinawan background featuring a US military ship

Okinawa is an island rich with a history spanning back to the days of the Ryukyu kingdom, but it’s also home to a people and culture long subjected to colonial and militaristic oversight, from the banning of traditional hajichi tattoos by the Meiji-era government to the establishment of U.S. military bases post-WWII. Scholars and journalists have thoroughly dissected the issues surrounding the U.S. military bases for decades. But how do the bases affect the lives of the women who call Okinawa home?

This is what Akemi Johnson’s Night in the American Village: Women in the Shadow of the U.S. Military Bases in Okinawa explores in astonishing, unflinching detail. From American-loving amejo, to military wives, to mixed-race children, to sex workers, to activists, to war survivors, these women offer an immediate, intimate view into their lives that positions Okinawa as more than just an island hosting military bases. Night in the American Village goes beyond providing an in-depth look into the relationships between women and military servicemen. It also examines how these women navigate race, identity, history, and sociocultural pressures exacerbated by a foreign military presence.

Untangling the Dichotomies

All eleven chapters in Night are named after women, living and dead, whose lives are intrinsically tied to Okinawa’s physical and ideological landscapes. We first meet Rina Shimabukuro, a young woman brutally murdered by an American serviceman, but given new life and dignity through Johnson’s powerful, vivid prose. Rina’s story allows Johnson to introduce the broader tensions and complex issues surrounding the bases:

“I started gathering my own stories of people in Okinawa because I was tired of hearing these crude dichotomies, wielded for political use. The pure, innocent victim and the slut who asked for it. The faultless activist and the rabid protester. The demonic American soldier and his savior counterpart. They’re all caricatures, and if we’re using them to understand the larger political, sociohistorical situation…we’re not getting anywhere.”

Night in the American Village, pgs. 13-14

Each chapter is centered on a broader theme, and true to the above, Johnson does away with caricatures. The women featured come from a variety of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. In Chapter 6, women’s rights advocate Suzuyo helps detail the prevalence of sexual violence instigated by military personnel, and how rape stories are used as fodder to bolster anti-base rhetoric, while the survivors themselves are largely forgotten. Through the hafu Miyo in chapter 8, we uncover the complexities of racial ambiguity and how the education system views — and uses — mixed Okinawan children. Then there’s the flamboyant, outgoing activist Chie in chapter 10, who kayaks out to Oura Bay to protest the construction of Henoko Base. Thanks to Johnson’s riveting writing, these women leap off the page, becoming more than ink and paper, but real people with voices and opinions worth amplifying.

Kokusaidori, “international street,” in downtown Naha, Okinawa.

A Symbiosis of Cultures

At first, I worried the historical accounts, statistics, and anecdotes mixed in with these women’s narratives would bury their voices. Fortunately, my fears quickly proved unfounded. Johnson carefully incorporates her research in a manner that illuminates rather than diminishes these women’s lives. Rather than acting as foundations, they serve as gateways to broader themes without losing substance or value.

Contrary to the book’s subtitle, not all these women live in the shadows of the bases. Johnson presents Okinawa as a symbiosis of cultures where people are constantly “forging new identities, networks, and spaces” (p. 9). Kiki, the focus of chapter 9, finds she thrives in an American-style workplace and helps facilitate cross-cultural exchanges between servicemen and Okinawans. Arisa in chapter 5 finds success in her marriage to an American, which also alters her views of the bases. Many of the women also flip preconceived notions right on their heads. Daisy, the focus of chapter 7, is the most striking example. A former sex worker from the Philippines, Daisy refutes Johnson’s assumptions of sex work at every turn. Johnson’s admission to expecting a different, more “typical” narrative for Daisy was an honesty I greatly appreciated.


Not Simply Black and White

“…I talked to other protesters, who told us why they participated: for their kids and grandkids, for the animals in the bay, because the United States was vast and American bases should be in America, because Okinawa hadn’t yet healed from its sacrifice during World War II.”

Night in the American Village, p. 246

A modern study on Okinawa wouldn’t be complete without exploring the pro-base and anti-base movements. Johnson does this with analytical ease, describing her visits to protests and sit-ins in gripping detail. Johnson carefully lays out the pros and cons of both movements while showing how the movements aren’t simply black and white, right and wrong, but a blend of grays populated by people with a myriad of motivations. Some, like Chie, are motivated by a family member’s wartime experiences and generational trauma. Others, like members of Henoko Blue, protest on behalf of the environment. And some protest to give themselves a pat on the back in a self-serving type of performative activism. Motivations aside, there is legitimacy in both movements. Going further, there is legitimacy in those Okinawans who exist and live somewhere in the middle.

Military aircraft at Futenma Base in Ginowan, Okinawa.
Futenma Base in Ginowan, Okinawa.

A Phenomenal Work

To put it simply, Night in the American Village is a staggering, phenomenal book. This is without a doubt one of the most impactful nonfiction books I’ve ever read, and one I wholeheartedly recommend. It’s absolutely vital reading for anyone wanting to learn about Okinawa’s relationship with the U.S. military through the eyes and experiences of women. There’s no easy answer to the U.S. military presence on Okinawa, and neither does Johnson present one. She simply gives the women of Okinawa space to be themselves and speak their truths, both affirming and subverting the popular image of Okinawa and the bases. That alone is a huge step forward to a better understanding, if not a solution, to Okinawa and the bases.

Night in the American Village: Women in the Shadow of the U.S. Military Bases in Okinawa is available now from The New Press.

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Alyssa Pearl Fusek

Alyssa Pearl Fusek is a freelance writer currently haunting the Pacific Northwest. She holds a B.A. in Japanese Studies from Willamette University. When she's not writing for Unseen Japan, she's either reading about Japan, writing poetry and fiction, or drinking copious amounts of jasmine green tea. Find her on Bluesky at @apearlwrites.

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