Media watch: Asahi focuses on the reality of Okinawan women’s lives

Protest against US soldiers’ violence toward Okinawan women

Asahi Shimbun’s regular Koron feature typically asks three experts to contribute short essays on a designated theme. On Aug. 24, the column’s topic was the status of Okinawan women on the 50th anniversary of the prefecture’s reversion to Japanese control after being under U.S. occupation since the end of World War II. Okinawa, which was once a self-contained kingdom, has always been an outlier among Japanese prefectures for various reasons, some of them related to its culture. Consequently, the rest of Japan tends to view Okinawans as being distinct; and, in fact, even Okinawans think this as evidenced by their use of the word “Yamato” when they refer to the rest of Japan. However, the image that most Japanese have of Okinawa is that of a carefree place ideal for sightseeing, what with its tropical climate, and conducive to families with children, since Okinawa’s birthrate is always the highest of all the prefectures. 

One of the contributors, Prof. Yoko Uema of the University of the Ryukyus, attempts to dispel this image in her essay, first by pointing out that Okinawa is also perennially the poorest prefecture in Japan and thus would naturally be the most difficult place to raise children. However, prejudices on the main islands prevail and so the reality of children’s and, by extension, women’s lives is not generally known. 

As she points out, the reason the birthrate is so high on Okinawa is because birth control, whether utilized before (preventive) or after (abortion) possible conception, is not a facet of everyday life the way it is in the rest of Japan. Another statistic that distinguishes Okinawa is that the average age of women when they give birth for the first time is lower than anywhere else in Japan. And because income levels are also the lowest, not to mention the fact that after-school daycare and child welfare are very difficult to secure, many young mothers cannot afford to raise their children and usually leave such matters to their own mothers or female relatives. In addition, Okinawa has both the highest marriage rate and the highest divorce rate in Japan, as well as the highest portion of residents who remain single their entire lives. 

Though these various figures would seem to contradict one another, they mesh organically, the result of a social order that has been permanently damaged by the American occupation, which, for all intents and purposes, has never ended, even if in 1972 Okinawa officially “returned” to Japan. That’s because the American military presence, both before and after reversion, has strangled the island’s economy. It started, of course, during the occupation when the military controlled all aspects of Okinawans’ lives. After the war, the Japanese government, afraid of a baby boom amidst a staggering food and housing shortage, implemented widespread birth control measures, including abortion. On Okinawa, there was no such promotion of contraceptives, and per U.S. law abortion was illegal, thus forcing women who couldn’t afford children to resort to underground and/or homemade solutions, which often resulted in death or permanent physiological damage. Consequently, according to Uema, a stigma attached itself to birth control and abortion that lingered after 1972 and remains to this day. Women who get pregnant at whatever age almost always see the pregnancy to term, and since public support for families is substandard, so is the quality of childcare. 

And yet, Japanese people in general tend to think of Okinawans as self-sufficient, their mothers “strong and mutally supportive.” There’s even a local word to describe this cooperation—yuimaru, which is said to represent the “soul” of Okinawa, but, in fact, it is an economic necessity, and the many girls and women who fall out of this circle of support end up suffering greatly, mainly by relying on abusive men. Uema’s research has shown that there is more sexual abuse on Okinawa than in any other place in Japan. That’s because Okinawan males routinely are the victims of violence themselves as they grow up. When Okinawa reverted to Japanese control, the economy, which was totally dependent on the U.S., didn’t adapt accordingly. 

The results of this lack of change are explained by another Koron contributor, Wako Univ. instructor Masayuki Uchikoshi, who has studied marginalized groups on Okinawa in the field. He says many men who grow up on Okinawa, especially those from outside the main urban areas, tend to slip into artificially cultivated heirarchies in which they feel trapped and desperate. Almost all drop out of school due to economic necessity, and because of the lingering U.S. military influence, which controls huge swathes of land on Okinawa, manufacturing has never taken hold and agriculture and fisheries are limited. The only real work is in the construction field, and the only way to get construction work is through connections, thus the hierarchies that control everything. The people who run the construction businesses can take as much advantage of employees as they like, and often cheat them out of money and positions by not paying overtime or cancelling jobs without prior notice. The weaker you are, the more frustrated you become, and because Okinawa is an island, there is nowhere to go. You are stuck in this situation, and that leads to violent behavior that becomes normalized. The cycle of poverty and violence is structural, and it can be directly connected to the continuing presence of the U.S. military, which throttles opportunity. 

As Uema has shown in her own research, women are the end victims of this violence–at the hands of both local men and U.S. soldiers. Women who live in more rural areas, especially those from farming and fishing villages, tend to experience rape multiple times in their lives. They accept the general belief among men that women are their property. In order to alleviate some of this pain, Uema established her own facility called Oniwa, which provides support for teenage mothers. She still finds it difficult to convince girls to practice birth control, but she has seen some success. At least she has shown them that they have a right to choose whether they want to have a child, and what they can do to separate from abusive partners. But it’s difficult to do any of these things without an economic foundation that allows them to live independently. As she says at the end of her essay, she wants the central government to be involved in helping solve the problem, but given their attitude toward Okinawa in general she isn’t expecting much.

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