When Amazon released a documentary called Happy in 2012, they declared Okinawa, Japan the happiest place in the world.
What was strange to me was they depicted a side of Okinawa I did not see while I was stationed there in 2010 with the United States Air Force. Okinawa meant something entirely different to me.
Being a Korean American woman in the United States Air Force meant becoming keenly aware of the intersectionality of my racial and gender identities. Don’t get me wrong: When I was stationed in Anchorage, Alaska, I was aware of being the minority in a White, male dominant military. But when we were told we would TDY (have a temporary duty) in Japan, something shifted.
Right before we shipped out, the older Airmen began regaling tales to the younger Airmen of their past experiences being deployed to Okinawa. There was an old lady who was there for decades, who would put on a show, slicing a banana with her vagina, shooting slices at the crowd. The degree of exaggeration, I would never discover for myself. The massage parlors, they would tell us, is where you will find loose women to give you happy ending massages. All of them. It was a place where paid sex was readily available and encouraged.
But why was it so exciting for them? You could find prostitutes in America. We lived in a country that was becoming more and more open with sexuality. But when the older Airmen talked about Okinawa… well, the tone was different. Because the women were freaky. These were women who were seen by American society as being submissive. And this was the men’s opportunity to take a peek behind the curtain and offer them a chance at sexual liberation. Or so they thought.
A woman enjoying sex should not have been groundbreaking in 2010. But because Asian women are constantly subjugated to fetishization, it held a special place of interest for the United States military. And when I deployed with these men to Okinawa and landed on base, I was suddenly aware that I was getting more attention than I ever had before. And I knew why: Since we were in Asia, I was no longer one of them, my comrades, my fellow servicemembers. I was a plaything that was waiting to be unwrapped by a GI.
Married Airmen began messaging me, asking me to visit their hotel rooms. There was no promise of romance, no wooing… It felt transactional. I never accepted, but I noted that I was no longer distinguished from the women in Okinawa. And then, the Marines arrived.
I remember standing in the airplane hangar, listening to the announcement. The Marines are flying into Okinawa and our curfew was being removed. We were to stay completely on base. There was very little explanation offered, and it wasn’t until a fellow Airman had filled me in, I realized that the Marines had a separate culture than the other military branches. The Airmen described them with disgust; an imaginary code of honor among thieves. The Marines had ruined the beauty of Okinawa by getting drunk, breaking into their homes, and raping their women.
But haven’t we already done that by being here? I oftentimes wondered to myself. Haven’t we all raped their culture and exploited what Okinawa had to offer?
One morning, I drove off base and saw the true, untouched beauty of the island. The further we drove away from the base, the wilder the island revealed itself to me. But upon my return back, the closer you got to the base, the drearier it became. The businesses and restaurants closer to the gates were dingy, depressing, and had morphed themselves to cater to the Americans who had wedged themselves into their culture.
At some point, I called my Korean mother about what I had seen between some Okinawan women and the American military members; it would not be uncommon for them to marry and for the men to bring the women back to the states. I would see these “romantic” relationships play out on base. My mother expressed her disapproval. In Korean, she would say something that loosely translated to, they aren’t in their right minds. Even among Asian women, there appeared to be a sort of hierarchy of status and to marry a White GI was discrediting. I felt empathy. I was determined to believe that the Okinawan women were offered something they couldn’t refuse
Today, when people talk about the happiest place on earth, my thoughts return to my time on that island. But, to me, there will always be two sides to Okinawa.