Sex And Race In Okinawa

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DAVID GUTTENFELDER/AP

U.S. soldiers dance with Okinawan women at a popular club on the Japanese island

Timothy Woodland is in a grave predicament. The 6-ft. 4-in., 24-year-old Air Force staff sergeant sits in a jail cell in Okinawa, Japan. He goes on trial next month in a proceeding that could last as long as a year. He has already been through Japan's standard detention period--15 days in his case but sometimes as long as 23--during which a suspect is questioned without the presence of a lawyer. Denied bail, Woodland can comfort himself with English-language books, a Bible and American-style meals but no cigarettes, TV or air conditioning in heat that often tops 100[degrees]F. He isn't allowed to speak or write to friends and family. His mother, Arlene Jordan, who works in the engineering-services department at Fort Eustis, the U.S. Army base in Hampton Roads, Va., says she used to chat with her son every week by phone but hasn't communicated with him since his arrest. "Let's just say he is very far away from home," she tells TIME. He may be there for a long time. The African American is charged with raping a young Japanese woman in the early-morning hours of June 29 and, if found guilty, could spend up to 15 years in a Japanese prison.

To the rest of the world, the central question of the trial may be simple: Did Woodland rape the woman, or didn't he? But in Okinawa, the already murky case has been churned into a raging whirl by nationalist politics, screaming media, a half-century of dammed-up local grief and--roiling beneath it all--an undercurrent of racism.

Okinawa hates America, and Okinawa loves America. Okinawa is in fact so American that it can appear deceptively like home to the 25,203 U.S. servicemen stationed on its 38 U.S. military facilities. Reminders of Uncle Sam abound--America Mart, America Hotel and Club America. A two-story emporium called American Depot stands in the shadow of a giant Ferris wheel emblazoned with a Coca-Cola logo. Even at traditional matsuri, or summer festivals, children wave cotton candy, shirtless skateboarders do stunts on open walkways and women in shorts and bikini tops lick jewel-colored snow cones.

Tourists and dream seekers from the Japanese mainland flock to the archipelago's 60 tropical islands--called Okinawa, like the main island--precisely for its slice of red, white and blue. The biggest draws, especially for Japanese women, are the real live Americans. Amejo is local slang for girls who love Americans, but amejo can be found anywhere in Japan where Americans hang out. However, ground zero for amejo and their kokujo subculture is Okinawa.

Kokujo (girls who like black men) paint their skin cocoa, weave their hair in cornrows, dress like Lil' Kim--all the better to attract the prime catch, the black military man. In a country notorious for its disdain for people of color--pale skin has traditionally been the highest mark of beauty--the emergence of a subculture fetishizing blacks raises numerous issues, from the proliferation and power of global image peddlers like MTV to very basic questions of racial and sexual identity.

But 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 that Okinawa ranks high on the "dream sheet," the list of desired stations for enlisted men, which 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-yooo-tiful." There's a difference between viewing the ladies as delectable temptations, though, and seeing 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, in the days immediately following the rape charge, most news outlets didn't report the race of the accused. Some Western journalists did, but they didn't note that the accuser was almost certainly a kokujo and that the nightclub culture around the Okinawa 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 kokujo haunts. Of course, for a kokujo to say she was there to meet a man is not proof of consent. In the U.S. today, a woman's lifestyle and sexual history aren't relevant in such cases. In Japan, they can invalidate rape charges altogether. Given what is known about the events surrounding the incident, the case against Timothy Woodland may never have led to his indictment if he were a Japanese man.

On Thursday night, June 28, the action in Okinawa is on the third floor of a building in a candy-colored open-air mall called the American Village. A pink-and-blue neon sign shows where everyone is going: 3F, a bar and restaurant with a Southeast Asian theme. A couple of hundred people are already there, drawn by $3 cocktails and reggae and hip-hop tunes. It's so crowded that manager Jeff Short has abandoned his tiki-hut office to help behind the bar. The crowd is familiar, mostly female Japanese partyers and U.S. servicemen. Many of the girls dress alike--stiletto heels or sneakers, low-slung capris and halter tops, a spray of body glitter. (Short now says he doesn't recall a diminutive woman with white sneakers, a red sundress, brown-tinted hair and a butterfly tattoo on her shoulder.) Others do.

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