Content warning: Mentions of sexual assault and violence against women
Every Friday morning, rain or shine, a group of 10 or so people arrive to stand outside one of the gates of Kadena Air Base on the island of Okinawa, Japan. They’re usually older, dressed comfortably for the weather and equipped with large water bottles and folding chairs. No one comes to relieve them through their hours-long shifts, so they take turns going on snack runs to the FamilyMart down the road. Come evening, they gather their empty bentos and bottles and chairs and leave, always with the unspoken promise that they’ll be back in seven days’ time.
It’s a quiet, almost rote affair. If it weren’t for the signs they dutifully hold up throughout the day, which carry simple phrases like “NO BASE” and “NO RAPE” in bright block letters, you’d never know why they were there at all.
Every Friday, thousands of people pass them, coming and going from the largest military base on the U.S Pacific Coast. They’re a peaceful, unobtrusive but constant reminder of things that we didn’t talk about back when I was one of those thousands, just going to school or coming home: the anti-base movement — which calls for the reduction, if not the complete removal, of the outsized American military presence on the island of Okinawa — and the serial sexual assault of and violence against Okinawan women perpetrated by U.S. troops.
These protestors represent the remnants of the last major surge of demonstrations by Okinawans demanding the removal of American troops and facilities in Japan. In late May 2016, I was nearing the end of my junior year of high school when I started hearing whispers about something awful — the rape and murder of a 20-year-old Okinawan woman, Rina Shimabukuro, by an American military contractor. Within days, massive protests incited by the incident were taking place in Naha, Okinawa’s capital, and outside the gates of Kadena and Camp Foster, a Marine base down the road.
I remember seeing masses of people, young and old, crammed into the delta between Gate One, the largest of Kadena’s five, and Route 58, the six-lane highway right outside. They held signs that read “CLOSE ALL BASES” and “You, killer, go home right now,” shouting and chanting at the cars that dared to try to get past them to enter the base. Protestors spilled over into the first few lanes, almost halting traffic on both sides of the road as some slowed to avoid them and others to rubberneck. From the passenger seat of my mom’s minivan, trying to get to school on a Thursday morning, I was one of the rubberneckers, gawking at the scene and unsure how to comprehend such a display of anger at the American presence — my presence, my family’s, my friends’ — that I’d always believed was a benevolent one.
By that point, the situation was international news. It added uncertainty to an already-tense visit by President Barack Obama to Hiroshima, and Ambassador Caroline Kennedy was summoned to Japan for a meeting with the Japanese foreign minister. The military community in Okinawa was briefly wracked with a kind of fear that we didn’t know how to deal with, simply by the idea that the bubble of safety and peace we were so used to had popped. For a little while, we were a bit warier, a bit more unsure of each other.
For me, the incident marked a change in the way I perceived my own presence overseas, even if I didn’t have the words for it at the time. I grew up on military bases — in Sasebo, Japan, until I was three; Sicily, Italy, until I was eight and Okinawa, Japan, until I left for college at 18 — and, apart from having a few stock explanations about protecting American freedoms or liberties in the back of my mind, I was never asked to think very hard about how or why we were there. It took years after coming out of the isolation of the military community and distancing myself from it to understand why going back for winter and summer breaks had started to make me feel strange, why I sometimes felt guilty when I called Okinawa home.
But even after five years of living in the United States, I’m still trying to figure out how to fully articulate what it’s like to grow up within the military community. When asked, I usually start by dispelling any inaccurate notions in order of how often I’ve been asked to confirm or deny them in the past: military base does not equal military school (there were no uniforms, JROTC was optional and actually sort of uncool, my teachers were normal), we could come onto or leave the base whenever we wanted and I didn’t have to know Japanese to get by. I also search for comparisons to things in the United States to try to paint a picture (I’ve told a lot of people to just think of it as a huge subdivision, made up of lots of uniform, boring, beige buildings).
I concede that there were some oddities. Sometimes I’d end up driving next to an armored vehicle on a main road or would have to pause a conversation while a jet roared right overhead. I’ve been less than a foot away from more automatic rifles in my life than I could possibly count, and one or two of my friends’ parents had deeply classified jobs. But other than that, everything was pretty normal.
These are simple, relatively uncomplicated things that I say so that I don’t have to explain that I think military bases are profoundly unnatural spaces. Inside of gated strongholds — and alongside billions of dollars of aircraft, weaponry and the facilities that hold them — is the kind of monotony you might find in any American suburb. Existing behind the same miles of barbed wire and concrete walls are fighter jets and elementary schools, tanks and movie theaters, about 50,000 armed troops and fast-food chains. It feels almost impossible to say, but I had a mostly uneventful childhood in a place that, at any moment, could be fully mobilized against even the hint of a nuclear threat from North Korea.
The uncanny valley replications of American staples — the Burger King I frequented at lunch, the BX in place of a department store — and the ever-present threat of international violence are only parts of it, though. The rest is what can make the experience of being a military kid uniquely joyful. Just minutes from the gates were not only countless historical and cultural sites and opportunities to learn about somewhere so different from the United States, but the beaches where I spent nights camping and days skipping school and the restaurants where I could fill up on sushi for five dollars — the chances not just to take in the place, but to live in it, to be a part of it.
In some ways, I feel like I know Okinawa so well. It’s been a few years since I’ve been back, but I’m positive that I could still navigate from my house to the aquarium on the other end of the island with my eyes closed. I could recommend restaurants the way a local would, or tell you how to get to hidden beaches and graffitied, abandoned hotels. Some of my fondest memories and dearest friends were made in these places and through our explorations together.
It’s hard, then, to reconcile this intimacy I feel with the place with how little I knew about its history by the time I graduated high school. While I can blame this in large part on the military’s limp attempts to encourage its employees and their dependents to engage with their host country’s culture, and its outright failure to discuss or inform us about the tumultuous history of its presence in Okinawa, it’s important that I take accountability as well. I never really bothered to learn much Japanese and instead depended on the locals’ knowledge of English. I rarely questioned why there were 13 military bases on an island only 66 miles long, or stopped to wonder if they were necessary at all. As much as Shimabukuro’s murder disquieted me on a personal level, and dredged up decades-old issues between the Japanese and American governments, I didn’t go looking into them. As persistent as the Friday protestors were, I eventually began to disregard them.
It’s painful to admit that it took leaving Okinawa and taking a class on Japanese art at the University of Michigan to actually start engaging with the island’s history in earnest. I already knew that Okinawa was once the seat of the Ryukyu Kingdom and a former tributary of China, and that speakers of its native language are rare, but I knew nothing about the Japanese annexation of Okinawa in 1879 and Japan’s calculated repression of that native language. As I was growing up, I’d heard plenty about the Battle of Okinawa, its catastrophic death toll and its decimation of the island, but had no idea that the United States seized administrative control after World War II, then kept it for over 25 years before selling it back to Japan for $320 million in 1971 (over $2.2 billion in 2022 money).
Historical context alone is enough to understand why local anger at excessive American occupation constantly simmers and occasionally boils over in Okinawans, but issues between the two parties are still ongoing. As recently as mid-April of this year, a Marine was indicted on the charge of sexual assault. Uses of Osprey — a combat aircraft — 10 years after mass protests called for their elimination are still raising safety concerns. Almost 20 years ago, the U.S. government agreed to relocate the highly unpopular Futenma Air Station, but the relocation itself has consistently been met with resistance from locals and the Okinawa government.
When I finally brought myself to learn all of this, I was met with a kind of discomfort that I can only describe as retroactive guilt — which I still carry around with me and am still trying to understand. The struggle has been in trying to square the happiness of my childhood with my belief that the American military, the thing that afforded me all of that happiness, should not be in Okinawa in its current form. The struggle has been in understanding the anger, recognizing my presence there as a colonialist one and feeling helpless because I don’t know what to do about it.
In the past few years, these struggles have led me to amend my answer to the question of where I’m from — I’ve stopped saying I’m from Okinawa and have started saying that I grew up there. It’s a nearly imperceptible change that only assuages my guilt by the smallest fraction, but that still feels necessary to me, even if it’s a little bit devastating, too.
Everything in me wants to be from Okinawa, of it. I spent 10 of my most formative years there, getting to know the island in the way that anyone gets to know their hometown — becoming friends with people who are still some of the most important figures in my life, mooring myself and so much of my happiness to the beaches and cliffs and waterfalls. I want to be able to claim the space that’s responsible for shaping the person I am, but I just don’t feel like I can anymore. Its history feels so insurmountable, and the institutions I’ve soured to are so firmly in place that all I can think to do is distance myself from them as much as I can.
I’m still figuring out how to balance my gratitude and guilt for having grown up the way I did, how to admit that I wouldn’t change anything about my individual experience, all while being unsure if I should’ve had it in the first place. I don’t know if I’ll ever know how to do either of those things, or if I’ll ever be able to go back to Okinawa without feeling like I shouldn’t be there. But if I do, it’ll only be to learn — to revisit but not to reclaim a place that, for better or worse, means so much to me.
Statement Correspondent Katrina Stebbins can be reached at email@example.com.