Okinawa Nights

Okinawan students shout anti-U.S. slogans during a demonstration outside the Kadena Air Base

ITSUO INOUYE/AP
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Stereotypes swing the other way, too. The image of the geisha still pervades Western ideas of Japanese women. Among servicemen, the gaggles of pretty Japanese girls are a big reason why Okinawa ranks high on the "dream sheet," the list of desired stations for enlisted men that usually includes Hawaii and the bases closest to their hometowns. Demetrius Young, 27, a black Marine Corporal from Miami, has been stationed in Okinawa just a week, and already: "I loooove Okinawa. Why? The ladies, they're all beee-auuu-tiful." There's a difference between viewing the ladies as delectable temptations, though, and viewing them as a free buffet course. "A young, dumb guy can get to thinking they're there for the taking," says Ray Fernandez, 33, a black former serviceman with 15 years in Okinawa.

Both racism and sexism are relevant because they may dictate this case. Still, the media tries to pretend otherwise. In the days immediately following the rape charge, most news outlets didn't report on the race of the accused. Some Western journalists did, but they didn't note that his accuser was almost certainly a kokujo and that the nightclub culture around the Okinawan bases is almost as segregated as the Jim Crow South. When off duty, most military personnel tend to congregate according to race. The clubs that black servicemen frequent are also the haunts of kokujo. Of course, saying she was there to meet a man is not proof of consent, nor are her sexual history or any particular proclivities or preferences. In the U.S. today, a woman's lifestyle and sexual history wouldn't be relevant. Here, they can invalidate rape charges altogether. Given what we know about the events surrounding the incident, the case against Timothy Woodland may never even have led to his indictment. If Timothy Woodland were a Japanese man.

Timothy Woodland was born in 1976, and grew up in Hampton Roads, Virginia. He enlisted in 1995, and, after a stint on Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, was shipped out to these islands four years ago. Woodland lived and worked on Kadena Air Force Base as a member of the Air Force 353rd Special Operations Group. His duty assignment was to select the best-suited aircraft to fly each mission scheduled at the base. His military record is unremarkable except for an achievement medal awarded in 1997. "He was a pretty quiet guy, and he was always playing basketball on base," says Emma Wilkinson, 26, a civilian friend. "He didn't hit the club scene that much."

For four days after an arrest warrant was issued on July 2, the U.S. refused to hand him over to Okinawan police, a move that infuriated Okinawans and many other Japanese. The Status of Forces Agreement between Japan and the U.S.�the so-called SOFA, which dictates service members' legal rights in Japan�protects even those charged with a criminal offense from incarceration by the Japanese until after an indictment is served. Among the reasons for this is the 23-day detention period, which the U.S. considers overly harsh. In fact, it was only after a 12-year-old schoolgirl was raped by three servicemen in 1995 that the U.S. bent its objections and promised to consider handing over suspects prior to indictment in cases of "heinous" crimes.

Incensed over the perceived foot-dragging after the accusation against Woodland was aired, hundreds of Okinawans protested. The uproar reached all the way to President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, upsetting their first summit meeting in Washington. Okinawan politicians, sensing an opportunity, lunged once again for the brass ring: they demanded the SOFA be revised. Koizumi agreed it needed work; U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, on a visit in mid-July, flatly refused. Outrage mounted to a point that it seemed almost an offering to better U.S.-Japan relations when the Air Force did, eventually, give Woodland up. Staff Sergeant Woodland was arrested July 6, a week after the incident, and indicted on rape charges 15 days later.

That his case has become a focal point for U.S.-Japan relations bodes badly for Woodland, as does continuing media coverage of subsequent stupid escapades by servicemen. Over a single steamy week in late July, one U.S. serviceman in Okinawa fired a BB gun at pizza-delivery boys, another tipped over a stranger's motor scooter, another set fire to a car and a Lance Corporal Marine got sentenced to five years in Japanese prison for repeated arson attacks on stores.

The crimes haven't all been petty. U.S. troops of all races have committed atrocities here, particularly sexual assaults. The list makes shameful reading for any American: July 2000, a 19-year-old Marine is charged with molesting a 14-year-old girl; January 2000, a Marine lifts the skirt of a 16-year-old to take a picture of her underwear. But the crimes committed by blacks are particularly noted and remembered, and in Okinawa, no one seemed surprised when the three servicemen who raped the 12-year-old girl turned out to be black.

After that 1995 attack, a long-simmering rage toward the U.S. presence exploded into vociferous activism, and Okinawa has never been the same. Victims formed support groups; students learned to rally. Over every incident big and small that followed, politicians have pelted U.S. forces with demands to impose curfews, change treaties, shut down bases�and a voracious media covers it all.

To read the local papers now, you'd think the U.S. military's main mission in Okinawa is for its personnel to engage in crime sprees. Actually a closer look at the police blotter tells a different story. According to the Okinawa prefectural government, U.S. military personnel were responsible for 5,006 crimes between 1972 and 2001. That's 1.7% of the 290,814 crimes committed in Okinawa during that period�perpetrated by a group that comprised 4% of the population. Rapes and sexual assaults by servicemen grab the fattest headlines of all. Last year, 2,260 rapes nationwide were reported to authorities. Statisticians don't break out how many were committed by foreigners, but this much is known: Of those rapes, 267 occurred in Osaka, 260 in Tokyo, and just 29 in Okinawa.

But locals have come to hold no faith in statistics. In the years following the war, they say rapes were shockingly rampant�and yet the U.S. military, which governed the island then, has no record of any such war crimes committed in Okinawa.

An hour-and-a-half's drive from the bustle of Naha City is a village called Katsuyama. It's both minutes and light years away from Nago, the site where the leaders of the world's most powerful countries met at the G8 summit a year ago. Even the term village is a stretch for the sparse scattering of thick, orange-tiled houses set amid jungle-covered mountains.

In the spring of 1945, hell came to Okinawa. America was poised to invade; the Japanese Imperial Army drove locals from cave hideouts and told them to sharpen bamboo spears to kill the invading "devil army," which they warned would rape and kill without mercy. Like other Okinawans, the citizens of Katsuyama cowered in wait. What happened next was a secret villagers would bury in one of those caves until three years ago.

Much of the wartime population has passed away, but Hiromitsu Yasumura learned the tale from village elders while still a child�and was ordered never to tell an outsider. Sitting in the village meeting hall, the lone building in what passes for Main Street, the orchid farmer, 46, and his wife Rie, 45, recount what happened.

Three U.S. soldiers came upon the village on an exploratory foray and raped a local girl. They returned again and again to rape her and others, growing so fearless they sometimes appeared without weapons. The villagers finally had enough. One day, all the men and a few straggling Japanese soldiers ambushed the three Americans and stoned them to death.

The women scrubbed the bloodied stones and the men dragged the bodies up a steep mountain face through jungle to a narrow, deep cave. They hid the bodies and covered the entrance with rocks, never to be touched until 1998 when local police found the cave and the remains within. "We have always called it Kurombo Gama," says Yasumura. Negro Cave. The three soldiers were black.

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