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Okinawa scourged by storm of sexual violence under post-WWII US rule

  • July 1, 2022
  • , The Mainichi
  • English Press

NAHA — The 1945 Battle of Okinawa claimed the lives of an estimated one in four of the island’s people, but Okinawans’ suffering was not to end there. Over the next 27 years of American rule, local women were subjected to a storm of sexual violence by U.S. military personnel and civilian staff, with at least 310 cases reported.


Those 310 cases were confirmed by a citizens’ group in a survey covering the years from 1945 to Okinawa’s reversion to Japan in 1972.


“Women who fall victim to sexual violence and those around them suffer for the rest of their lives. They cannot just let it pass like it never happened,” says Mitsue Tomiyama, 80, a resident of Uruma, Okinawa Prefecture, who has been chronicling the incidents.


Tomiyama was 3 years old at the time of the Battle of Okinawa between Imperial Japan and the United States in the Pacific War’s dying months. Carried on her mother’s back, she sheltered in a natural cave during the American attacks. After the war, the U.S. military’s White Beach base opened near her home in the village of Katsuren, now part of Uruma. She remembers bells ringing when U.S. servicemen were seen heading to the village from the base.


Her father was deployed to Bougainville Island in Papua New Guinea during the war and did not return for some time after it ended. Her grandmother would paint her own face black and hold a sickle to avoid being assaulted by the Americans, and hid Tomiyama and her mother under the floor of their home in the neighborhood of shabby wooden houses. They could hear the footfalls of the men going into the home next door, followed by angry shouts in English, and then screams.


Under U.S. rule, in principle U.S. forces held sole rights to investigate and prosecute crimes committed by U.S. military personnel and their affiliates. And so it was very difficult for Okinawan police to arrest them unless they were caught in the act.


When Tomiyama was a grade schooler, a third-year high school student living in her neighborhood died on her way from school after she jumped off a U.S. military truck that had gave her a ride. She was apparently trying to escape being sexually assaulted. The girl’s mother was enormously proud of her only daughter, as only a handful of excellent female students could advance to high school at the time. The girl’s father had died in battle.


Tomiyama also feared for her own safety. After going to a celebration at a local hall for students who had passed high school entrance exams, she was walking along a street at night when she noticed a U.S. serviceman was following her on horseback. She ran into a nearby private home, and was safe. “I was so scared. I could sense the odd look on the American’s face.”


In the 1950s, entertainment quarters where prostitution was essentially given a free pass sprung up around U.S. military bases. Random attacks on local women decreased, but in their stead came murders of bar and restaurant hostesses. There were also eating and drinking establishments around the White Beach base serving U.S. personnel. In this neighborhood, where the “base economy” was thriving, victims of sexual violence and their families lived as if they were hiding from the community.


After Okinawa’s return to Japan, Tomiyama worked for a local social welfare council, delivering “bento” boxed meals to elderly single households once a week and checking on their safety. One of her clients was the mother of the high school student who had died jumping from the U.S. military truck. When Tomiyama delivered a bento to her, she would place it on the Buddhist altar and tell her deceased daughter, “Yummy, yummy, isn’t it?” She never took a bite of the food for herself. The sight was heart wrenching every time.


Since Okinawa reverted to Japan, crimes targeting local women continued. In September 1995, a girl was raped by two U.S. Marines and a U.S. sailor. “Even after Okinawa’s return, nothing has changed,” Tomiyama thought at the time. Together with acquaintances, she launched a women’s group to fight against the presence of U.S. bases, and created a chronology of sex crimes committed by U.S. military personnel and staff after World War II.


The chronology contains sources for each crime, such as public documents, books, newspaper articles and testimonials. The content was updated every time a new incident occurred or new resources and testimony were acquired. In the 12th edition of the chronology published in 2016, the number of crimes reached 360, including some involving people Tomiyama knows personally.


In May this year, a U.S. Marine was handed a prison sentence for rape causing injury after attempting to sexually assault a stranger in Naha. Fifty years on since Okinawa’s return to Japan, crimes trampling on women’s human rights have shown no sign of abating.


This year, Tomiyama’s group is planning to release a new edition of the sex crime chronology. “Some assailants just return to their normal lives without being punished even after committing a crime. By chronicling each and every case, we’d like to demonstrate that we have not forgotten,” Tomiyama said.


(Japanese original by Hiroshi Higa, Naha Bureau)

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