Local Rape, Global Issue: One Rape and Marginalization in Okinawa and Beyond

Local Rape, Global Issue: One Rape and Marginalization in Okinawa and Beyond

Local Rape, Global Issue

One Rape and Marginalization in Okinawa and Beyond


In September 1995, a 12-year-old Okinawan schoolgirl was raped by three US servicemen, not far from the military bases on the island. The incident caused great commotion in Okinawa and Japan, and this outrage quickly raised the debate concerning the presence of US bases in Japan and brought wider attention to military-related violence against women across Asia (Feffer 2008). In this way the rape of one girl did not only become a national issue, but also became a topic of debate in international affairs. The rape of one girl lead to a discussion of sexual relations between US troops and the local women around the bases, and these relations received more serious scholarly analysis (Zimelis 2009).

One raped girl, in a way, became an issue in the field of International Relations. Should cases like this indeed play a role in IR? At the root of this question is the occurrence of marginalization in international relations and national security at multiple levels. In other words the question is: can certain groups or certain people be marginalized in international affairs and national security? Here I will elaborate on how marginalization takes place around the presence of US military bases in Asia, and how this marginalization is gendered.

Feminism & International Relations

Focusing on what happens at the margins of global politics is an important characteristic of Feminism. Feminist theories of International Relations have flourished since the mid 1980s. Women and War (Elshtain 1983), Tickner’s Gender in International Relations (1992) and Enloe’s Bananas, Beaches, and Bases (1989) are three bedrock texts on which feminist theory is built (Sylvester 2002; True 2009). Although Feminism is a very broad theory that has a lot of diversity within its own field, there are some main features. Except for focusing on marginalized people, Feminism also takes gender as a central category of analysis.

‘Gender’ is defined as a set of socially and culturally constructed characteristics. It shows how concepts like strength, power, autonomy, independence, rationality and the public, are stereotypically associated with masculinity, just as weakness, dependence, emotion and the private are traditionally linked with femininity. It is exactly those characteristics that are associated with men and masculinity that are most valued in the ones who conduct foreign policies. Institutional structures have brought gender relations to the business of politics; gender is not just a phenomenon that belongs in the household. On the contrary, it is exactly in the field of international politics that relations are especially gendered (Burchill&Linklater 2001; Tickner 1992&1997).

In international politics, according to Tickner (1992), characteristics that are associated with hegemonic masculinity are projected onto the behaviour of states. This is why Feminism has mostly sought to deconstruct Realism, since it is the most dominant explanation of ‘power politics’ of post-war IR. Realism privileges issues that concentrate on the activities of great powers at the centre of the system; issues which all come from men’s experiences. Realism is the oldest and most frequently used theory of International Relations. The core lies in the belief that all states are egoistic, and that international affairs is actually a struggle for power among nations. Military strength and belief in persistence of conflict are important characteristics (True 2009; Donnely 31; Snyder 55). Feminism wants to reconceptualize power; the determination of what is considered ‘important’ in IR should not only come from the experiences of an elite group of men. Realism puts emphasis on the power of states and individuals do not play an important role. Feminism, however, speaks from the experiences of the ones who are usually on the margins of society, and therefore they ‘can offer new insights on the behaviour of states and the needs of individuals, particularly those on the peripheries of the international system’ (Tickner 1992: 18).

Apart from the exposure of the margins and gender relations, a third main feature of Feminism is the ‘realness’ of the field: Feminism does not focus on theory, but on the real world. This becomes especially clear through Enloe (1989). She wants people to stop seeing International Relations as consisting of peopleless states and abstract societies. Instead of theorizing IR, IR should begin to look for the many people, places, and activities of everyday international politics. By doing so, Feminist claim they are describing a reality, instead of an idealism (Enloe 1989; Sylvester 2002; Tickner 1997).

One Rape

On September 4th, American Labour Day of 1995, four US servicemen were standing in a bar in Naha, talking about having some ‘fun’ and going to ‘get a girl’. They took a car and searched the area around their base where they spotted a 12-year-old girl who had just bought a schoolbook. She was taken into the car, raped by two of the men, and was left behind on a remote strand of beach. The girl was able to drag herself up and go to one of the houses behind the beach. Since the girl could describe the men and even remembered their license plate, the men were arrested within hours of the crime (Angst 2003; Desmond 1995).

The rape on the schoolgirl sparked a heated debate on the presence of US troops in Okinawa: should the military bases stay or go? But the rape was not only a catalyst for this debate. It also marked a general trend that was taking place all over Asia. Before elaborating on this ‘trend’, I will first start at what happened on a national level after the rape of the girl, and why the situation developed this way.

The rape and the arrest of the men immediately prompted strong reactions from different groups in Okinawa. Women called for extra security around the US bases, landowners started protesting for being forced to lease their land to the military, and politicians started questioning the nature and role of the US-Japan Security Treaty. Since US officials refused to turn over the perpetrators to Japan for the first three weeks after the crime, the incident even launched an international debate between Washington and Tokyo over the US bases in Okinawa (Angst 2003; Cooley & Marten 2006).

The reactions on the rape are strongly connected to the history of Okinawa that has lead to a dominant anti-militaristic sentiment on the island and a tense relationship with the Japanese mainland. Firstly, in 1879 the island was annexed by Tokyo against the people’s will. Secondly, the island had to deal with one of the bloodiest battles of the W.W.II during the Battle of Okinawa, where 216.000 Okinawans were killed by the US. Thirdly, from 1951 to 1972 Okinawa was occupied by the American military. In the present day, Okinawa still does not really have peace; twenty per cent of the land is occupied by the US bases and more than 20.000 serviceman are based there, because of the Security Treaty between Japan and the US (Cooley & Marten 2006). The presence of the Americans has had a great impact on the lives of people. From 1972 to 2001 there have been 5076 reported cases of crime by US soldiers, including assault and rape. There have been 157 aircraft accidents. Fires occur through life-fire exercises and there is water pollution because of oil leaks. In short: the presence of the US military does not bring a sense of protection or peace to the Okinawan people (Okinawa Pref Website).

Tanji (2006) points out in her book that Okinawa has become an island of protests. She remarks, however, that there is not one singular ‘Okinawan struggle’; in fact there are multiple struggles, which are fragmented and often at odds with each other (Allen 2008). The rape of 1995 indirectly also demonstrated the existence of these different struggles; different actors within Okinawa politics took this incident as an anchor to chain their own agenda’s to. The rape did not only represent a larger group of female victims, it also symbolized the suffering of the entire prefecture. An essential term in the interpretation of the rape is ‘marginalization’. The news of the rape resulted in so much commotion mainly because of marginalizations. These marginalizations exist on different levels.

When the schoolgirl was raped, women groups were among the first to respond and stand up to the media. Women in Okinawa have been a marginalized group for a long time. It has always been women who had the most direct contact with American GIs over the last 50 years. Women worked as waitresses, maids and prostitutes to serve them whilst economically supporting their family. Although many women were sex workers for their family’s sake, they have been heavily stigmatized by society. Women have been the primary victims of sexual and other forms of physical violence committed by military personnel from the base, which has the highest crime rate of all the US foreign military bases. In short, the military station on Okinawa influences the everyday life of the women and poses a threat to their security. Women groups do not accept the structural violence anymore and want their voices to be heard (Keyso 2000; Takazato 2000; Angst 2003). To the women groups the girl’s rape connected to the issue of women’s safety; women’s safety needs to be protected by taking measures and encouraging initiatives that actually secure and improve women’s lives. Women took the case of the girl in order to reach their goals. They have been marginalized not only by the mainland, who allowed the bases on the island, but also by the local government of Okinawa itself, since it does not take active measures to improve the lives of women.

As explained before, Okinawa itself is also a ‘victim’ of marginalization. Japan’s security policy marginalizes Okinawan people by allowing the US bases to take over a great deal of their land and affecting their personal security. To the Okinawan government, the rape did not longer represent a larger group of female victims; it only symbolized the suffering of the entire prefecture, and the crime itself was hidden from view. Perhaps you could even say that the Okinawan Ota government took advantage of the anti-base sentiments that rose through the rape in order to promote an economic agenda that actually neglected women’s matters (Angst 2003). The rape itself became an insignificant incident, and the meaning was lost, as it became a symbol for hegemony.

Okinawa is also referred to as the ‘sacrificed’ or ‘prostituted’ daughter of Japan, since Japan sacrificed one peripheral part of the nation in order to secure its own safety. However, the overall US-Japan security relationship requires a US basing presence; this is how the relations were governed by the one-sided security treaty and by Japan’s post-war constitution that was put into place under the heavy pressure and guidance of Washington. It made it impossible for Japan to create its own military organization, and therefore the US would be present in Japan in order to protect the national security (Cooley & Marten 2006). In this way, Japan’s sovereignty is played down by America. Japan avoids the permanent presence of the US military as much as possible by externalizing them to Okinawa. The rape on the girl has been a new way for Tokyo to put revision of the security treaty on the agenda with Washington.

All these different actors (women-groups, Okinawan people, Okinawa government and Tokyo) are powerless in a way, and all of them had to make sacrifices. When a young, pure girl was raped by a group of Americans, she became the perfect symbol to all of them to express their own suffering.

Global Issue

The rape of the schoolgirl moved beyond the scope of Okinawa and Japan, becoming a significant case in the broader area of the US bases over Asia. Among others, there are military bases in South Korea and Philippines as well. In the alliances with these countries, the US also is the dominant partner, like with Japan (Feffer 2008). This imbalance of power in alliance at the ‘top-level’ is an important factor in what goes on at the ‘grassroot-level’, since this imbalance is also mirrored at the level of power in gender relations; the extension and restructuring of the military bases depend on the imbalance of power. This extension and restructuring goes hand-in-hand with exploitation of host communities by the polluting of the environment, the abuse of women and children through the sex-industry, violence and rape. In this way the power dynamics of militarism eventually rely on the gendered relations of dominance and subordination, where women’s bodies, the land and the host communities are feminized (Feffer 2008).

These gendered power dynamics also become clear through Sylvester (2002), who says that foreigners, like women, are frequently portrayed as “the other”: nonwhites and tropical countries are often depicted as irrational, emotional, and unstable. These are all characteristics that are also attributed to women. In the West, or in the US military, one is taught to think about international politics in a way that is very similar to the way in which one is taught to think about gender differences. That is why it is essential to acknowledge these hierarchical constructions and the way they relate to power. If these constructions are not revealed, the relations of domination and subordination will always stay the same (Sylvester 2002). Whilst Realism does not pay attention to the gendered aspect of power dynamics, it is exactly that what Feminism does; when gender would be a central category of analysis, the field of IR might look completely different.
The rape of the Okinawan girl is now often named with a series of assaults by the military. In 1992, a Korean prostitute was raped and murdered by an American soldier. In 2001 a force sergeant raped a twenty-year old Okinawa girl. In 2002, a marine major assaulted a Filipino barmaid. In 2005, two young Filipino women were raped (Chalmers 2008). These are only a few of the many examples of what happens around the US bases across Asia. The scope of the sex-industries around the bases are enormous; in the Philippines alone there are already 50.000 prostituted women. In Sex Amongst Allies, Moon (1997) focuses on the military prostitution in South Korea, and how this selling and buying of sex has been a staple of US-Korean relations since the Korean War and the stationing of US troops in Korea since 1955. Since that time, over one million Korean women have served the US military as sex workers.

The highly publicized rape of the 12-year-old made people more aware of the violence against and exploitation of women that recurs around military bases all over, and made it clear that these are actually interrelated phenomena. So what makes the local ‘global’?

‘Invisibility’ is one thing that makes the rape of the schoolgirl an important issue. The girl has always stayed anonymous. The fact that she is faceless and nameless makes her ‘invisibility’ more ‘visible’, and makes her a suitable symbol for a lot of invisible groups. Rape, assault, prostitution, and exploitation of women are phenomena that recur from Okinawa to Seoul. Moon emphasizes how governments have always viewed prostitution as a means to advance “friendly relations”, yet the women who serve the men are treated as trash and carry a social stigma for the rest of their lives. Rape and prostitution, are, obviously, not the same thing. However, rape, assault and prostitution are named in one sentence here since these women are all victims of their government’s alliances and treaties with the US military in the way their security is marginalized, and how their presence is made invisible, although they play such an important role. Under the blanket of ‘national security’, their existence is shrouded in smoke. South-Korea, the Philippines and Japan each have their own reasons for security treaties with the US and the presence of the bases. Their presence is defended by governments as serving national security. But, one could ask: if it is not women’s security, then whose security is it actually? Realists claim that the best way to assure the security of states is to prepare for war (Sylvester 2002: 10), but for many people on the margins even times of ‘peace’ are not secure.

A second way in which the case of the Okinawan girl exposed a more general trend, is the extreme violence of the military servants who gang-raped her. The fact that such extreme violence also recurred in the Philippines and South-Korea shows that these crimes are socially constructed: male soldiers are forced to think in a certain way about themselves and their bodies, whilst also thinking in a certain way about the ‘other’, the ‘exotic’ Japanese, Korean or Filipino woman. This pattern of sexual violence reveals structural inequalities between Asian communities and the US military. Whilst the military sees each crime as an isolated act, committed by individual soldiers, local communities see these crimes of gendered violence as a structural issue (Feffer 2008): the military men structurally behave in a certain way. Connell and Messerschmidt (2005) show how the pursuit of hegemonic masculinity can be linked with particular patterns of aggression. Hegemonic masculinity is associated with negative characteristics that depict men as unemotional, independent, non-nurturing and aggressive, which are all causes for criminal behaviour (Connell&Messerschmidt 2005). In the military, specific patterns of hegemonic masculinity are deep-rooted. The many examples of violence around the bases show that these patterns have become increasingly problematic.

Should cases like the rape of the schoolgirl play a role in International Relations? The fact is that cases like this, that women who have to do with the GI’s, that women who work in the sex-industry, actually already are involved in political processes. The prostitute, the rape-victim, the barmaid; they are already involved through, as Moon (1997) says, “gendered norms and institutions, foreign policy changes that, far from affecting only the relations among governments, directly produce changes in women’s lives” (11). They are involved in IR and are part of IR.
The thing that is now left to do is further lift the curtains of invisibility that have long surrounded the 12-year-old and all the others that have been marginalized for the ‘sake’ of the nation’s security.


The rape of 1995 is not forgotten, and the rapes and violence that sadly occurred after ’95 now receive great attention. Okinawa is getting more support, and voices of protest still grow louder. Women’s groups across Japan, South Korea and Philippines are collaborating in order to let their voices be heard. It becomes clear now that in reality the ‘centre’ cannot keep on ignoring the ‘periphery’, since growing protests eventually do affect international relations. This is a pivotal sign that a nation cannot marginalize certain groups when it comes down to security.

Moon (1997) addresses the tendency of understanding foreign policies as sets of policies that are drawn up and worked out by an elite group of men in dark suits, as abstracted from individual lives. But feminist scholars have now brought to our attention the distinctions between public and private in the domestic polity: the personal is political (Sylvester 2002). The one rape is not an isolated act or a one-time local event. The rape itself is connected to deep-rooted gendered relations between the US military and Okinawa, and it is connected not only to Okinawa but goes beyond this local scope. The strong reactions on the rape are connected to marginalization on several levels, from local to national. What is essential is that the rape is not ‘just’ one rape; there is a whole world behind it.

It is crucial that this rape is not just used as a symbol for multiple actors that have been marginalized in a certain way. The rape should be brought back to the issue of the rape itself and in that way represent a larger group of marginalized women. The voices of these women, although behind time, will be heard by the leaders at the core. Undue marginalization at the periphery will eventually find its way to get deserved acknowledgement at the centre.


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