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Interview: Why is there no end to sexual violence by U.S. military personnel in Okinawa?

Suzuyo Takazato, co-chair of the group Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence. (Mainichi)

In May this year U.S. President Barack Obama made a historic visit to Hiroshima. But do people still remember what happened shortly before this? A 20-year-old woman from the Okinawa Prefecture city of Uruma was raped and murdered, and a civilian employee of a U.S. base in the prefecture was arrested. (*1)

    Why is there no end to sexual assaults by people associated with the U.S. military in Okinawa? The Mainichi Shimbun recently interviewed Suzuyo Takazato, co-chair of the Naha-based group Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence, who has tackled this issue. The following is a summary of the interview:

    Mainichi: The crime occurred on May 19, eight days before Obama visited Hiroshima.

    Takazato: Yes. I got to know the woman who went missing through Facebook, and I was concerned about her. I was on my way home from shopping at the supermarket when I heard the news of the arrest. I heard on the radio that the White House had quickly announced that the arrested person was not an active-duty soldier but a civilian employee. This made me angry. It was as if they were saying, "We have nothing to do with this."

    Only recently before that, in March, a U.S. serviceman was arrested on suspicion of incapacitated rape of a female tourist, sparking protests. I was angered, and felt sapped of energy, helpless and not wanting to talk to anyone. But then I got a call from a friend asking me, "What are you going to do, Suzuyo?" I thought it would be no good for me to remain in a state of exhaustion, and so the following day, women's groups held a joint news conference at the prefectural government headquarters.

    Mainichi: On May 22, a demonstration was also held in front of the headquarters of the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa.

    Takazato: We didn't shout in union, worrying that if we raised our voices, those voices might erase the sadness of other people. Instead, we decided to stand in silence. We held in front of us images of butterflies said to represent the souls of those who have died in Okinawa, and held up signs in English and Japanese reading "Withdraw all U.S. Forces from Okinawa." There were people there holding the hands of small children, with both young and old in attendance. We printed about 300 copies, but about 2,000 people turned up.

    Mainichi: You served for seven years as a women's counselor in Naha, and the starting point of your activities was supporting women victimized by sexual violence.

    Takazato: I cannot forget receiving a call in my days as a women's counselor, from one woman who said, "I stopped being a human at the age of 21, but I really am a human. Don't forget this." The woman had been raped by three U.S. servicemen at the age of 21, and after that she worked as a hostess and dancer at a bar serving American soldiers, and then got into prostitution. When I met her, she was living a life in and out of psychiatric hospitals, apartments and women's refuge facilities. She was tormented by the delusion of being called a "dirty woman." She and I were the same age, and the only difference between us was whether we had been lucky or not.

    Mainichi: According to the Okinawa Prefectural Government, between 1972, when Okinawa was returned to Japan, and 2015, there were 5,896 crimes committed by those connected with the U.S. military, 129 of which were rape.

    Takazato: Not only after the reversion of Okinawa, but from around the closing days of the war, there were violent sexual assaults. Due to the large number of victims, a "special restaurant area" that was an officially recognized prostitution zone was set up. There were many women who stated that they had "almost been strangled" by soldiers who returned from the Vietnam War, and there were many cases in which hostesses were actually killed. After the return of Okinawa, many of them couldn't complain about suffering sexual violence, and there are many crimes that have been buried.

    A connection can be made between sexual violence and the true nature of the armed forces. That's because if you don't have the perception of discriminating against others, and making them comply with your will by force, then you can't make it as a soldier. At the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, we reported on the state of damage, and what we heard when we arrived back at Naha Airport was the rape of a young girl by three U.S. soldiers. (*2) We thought, "What have we been doing?" and regretted not having been in Okinawa. But we quickly arranged a news conference so the girl and her family would not be isolated.

    Mainichi: Following the crime in 1995, an agreement was reached to return U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Japan, but the process to return the base hasn't progressed, and painful crimes haven't ended.

    Takazato: The reason there is no end to crimes is that bases and troops are concentrated on this island. (*3) In 2005, the foreign minister was asked what he thought of a letter by a woman who revealed she had suffered sexual violence by a U.S. soldier and said she wanted the bases to be eliminated. He said, "Peace and security is preserved precisely because we have the U.S. military or the Self-Defense Forces." Well then what about the violence that happens from day to day in Okinawa? Is Okinawa not among the places that are to be maintained in peace?

    At the foundation of the problem is deeply rooted sexual discrimination, including in Okinawa. If we had a society in which anyone could complain about suffering sexual violence, could the U.S. military have remained stationed here this long? There is even a tendency to blame the victim for "going out walking at such an hour." Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence continues to find out and record the actual state of damage, and we want to put our effort into not letting anyone remain silent, down to the very last person.

    --

    (*1) Murder of Uruma woman: An employee of the U.S. military was arrested on suspicion of abandoning the body of a then 20-year-old woman from the city of Uruma. The arrested man was a civilian employed at a U.S. base, of U.S. nationality. The man was later charged with murder and rape. A total of about 65,000 people gathered at a prefectural protest. The prefectural assembly passed a resolution of protest calling for the removal of U.S. Marines from Okinawa.

    (*2) 1995 rape of girl: Three U.S. servicemen abducted an elementary school girl in a vehicle and raped her. About 85,000 people gathered in protest at an assembly of prefectural residents in the wake of the crime.

    (*3) U.S. bases in Okinawa: According to the Okinawa Prefectural Government, as of June 2011, 74 percent of facilities used exclusively by the U.S. military in Japan were concentrated in Okinawa, which accounts for just 0.6 percent of Japan's total land area. The size of the U.S. military force in Japan as of September 2015 was about 52,000 people.

    Profile: Suzuyo Takazato

    Takazato was born in Taiwan in 1940, and graduated from Okinawa Christian Junior College. After serving in positions including as a women's counselor for the Naha Municipal Government, she served four terms as a member of the Naha Municipal Assembly over 15 years. She is head of the Rape Emergency Intervention Counseling Center Okinawa. Her authored works include "Okinawa no Joseitachi: Josei no Jinken to Kichi, Guntai" (Okinawan women: women's rights, bases and the military). (Interviewed by Kimi Sorihashi, Osaka Cultural News Department)

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