JPRI Occasional Paper No. 36, June
2006 A Wild Start: Okinawa in the 1970s
By David R. Crews
In 1970, when I arrived on the Island of Okinawa, I had enough cash in my pocket to buy an Asahi (Honeywell in the states) Pentax Spotmatic Camera, with one Pentax Lens, during my second trip off post. At that time, the Spotmatic was the most popular camera among professional photographers around the world.
I really don't want to discuss my first trip off post, which occurred only three hours after I landed on Okinawa. You see, we newly arrived soldiers were supposed to stay on our posts for our first three days there, so our Army ID Cards were taken away from us when we landed and kept from us for our first three days on the island. When I took my first trip off post, I didn't have my Army ID Card, which was the only pass that we soldiers needed to go legally off post. But my newly assigned base, Sukiran, didn't have any gates guarded by MPs (Military Police), and there were no barriers to stop me from going into town and coming back a bit inebriated. Consequently, I went out bar hopping as soon as I could, and because prostitution was legal over there back then, I had sex with a prostitute for the first time, during my first evening on the island.
That three day rule was good for most new guys, because they often went wild if they went into town before they had a few days to settle in and adjust to being so far away from home. After World War Two, but previous to 1970, many of the GIs who landed on Okinawa -- realizing that they were about 10,000 miles from anybody they knew who could tell their families and friends about their getting loony drunk in the wild and crazy bar scene that was rockin' and rollin' on Okinawa at the time -- sometimes went way too wild and got into big trouble. The Army wanted their expensively trained troops to start work at their assigned jobs on Okinawa as soon after landing there as possible, not after spending an extended stay in the hospital and/or stockade. In a worst case scenario, of a wild drunken mistake made by a GI going out for the first time to get drunk and laid, the Army really hated sending bad news to a soldier's family back home.
Fortunately for me, though, a GI gentleman who had sat next to me on the plane across the Pacific Ocean, when I had flown from the U.S. to Okinawa for the first time, was returning to The Rock (GI jargon for Okinawa) after being home on thirty-day leave. Previous to his leave, he had spent a year on The Rock. On that plane ride he became a true buddy of mine, because he gave me explicit instructions on the ins and outs of the entire bar and babe scene on Okinawa. Also, the way my young mind figured it, I happened to be an experienced booze consumer and was therefore rather well controlled when under the influence. So I exempted myself from that three day rule and headed for the downtown bar and red light district after only three short hours on The Rock.
OK, I can admit it now. I knew I was taking a risk by going AWOL for a few hours, but I was just plain horny and thirsty, so I went into town anyway.
Several days after I had left the East Coast of the U.S. to wait for a few days at Oakland Army Base in California, until the Army flew me to Okinawa on a chartered commercial jetliner, my father sold a 1961 VW Bug for me that I had bought while going to U.S. Army Photo Lab Tech School. He sent me the money during my first week on The Rock. I immediately went to the Post Exchange, the giant main PX (military Wal-Mart) on Okinawa, and used some of the cash to buy two more Pentax lenses and some assorted photographer's necessities like lens filters, lens cleaners and such. Then I went through the PX and did some other shopping. I hit the men's clothing department and picked out some nice short- sleeved shirts and in-style pants, socks and a belt. I bought a small, used stereo from a guy in my barracks to play part of my record collection that I'd carried with me to Okinawa. I purchased some other odds and ends here and there and so started out on my tour of overseas duty with plenty of civilian amenities to help me feel comfortable in my own skin.
After that, I went out bar hopping again.
Gate Two Street and BC Street in Koza City was where the best wide-open bar district action was, except for the majority of Afro-American servicemen. Some of those guys did party with us Euro-American and Latino-American servicemen and go bar hopping with us, but most GI Soul Brothers stuck to "The Bush."
The Bush was an all black environment. The Soul Brothers had nearly completely segregated themselves out of all the other bar districts on The Rock a long time before I got there.
Oh, that probably isn't correct. I bet that they had been segregated out of the light-skinned GI's bar districts way back in the beginning of American troop occupation of the island. Then the black guys had liked what they were left with, because they had made themselves a place of their own that fit their lifestyles and cultural tastes, so they kept it.
I remember going by The Bush while riding in taxis or friends' cars. It was located down a side street that, I think, lay off a main highway that ran between Gate Two and BC Streets. When I looked down that street, especially on a pay-day night, there were thousands of Soul Brothers walking all over the place in a dark, thick, smoky crowd. White Brothers and Latino Brothers weren't allowed there, and if they made the mistake of entering The Bush, they got jumped by a bunch of black dudes.
During my time on The Rock, I heard one or two white dudes say that they had gone to The Bush a couple of times with some black friend of theirs, but I don't know. Maybe it was at the end of the month, when the bar districts were sparsely populated, because most GIs were out of cash. Maybe they knew one bad-ass black dude who could keep the other Soul Brothers from thumping their white faces, but I never saw any white faces in The Bush.
We rarely had any kind of racial segregation in our barracks. We white, black, and brown GIs all usually got along fine while working, living and partying together. There were times when I had some serious conversations with a black GI friend or two, a few of whom had lived through a lot of combat in Vietnam. We felt the same about many things in our lives, and we partied hard together, but The Bush was off limits to me.
Around 1989, when I was a patient in Ft. Howard Veterans Hospital, I got into a conversation with two African-Americans about The Bush. One was a male Army veteran, who was a patient there at the time, and the other was a female VA employee who was also an Army veteran. Both had been stationed on The Rock during their military service. One day we were swapping memories of our individual experiences on The Rock, and when I mentioned that I knew about The Bush, the male veteran said to me, kindly and sincerely, as he was a buddy of mine, "Ya know, a lot of white guys like to say that they went down into The Bush with some great big, bad-ass black friend of theirs, but they never did; them brothers down there wouldn't ever have allowed that to happen. They woulda' jumped both the white and black guy and kicked their asses." The female veteran looked at me and nodded in solemn but friendly agreement and said, "Yep, that's right, no white guys were ever allowed in The Bush."
Bars on Okinawa were either A-Sign or non A-Sign. An A-Sign bar was designated by a large letter A that was printed on a two by three foot placard nailed in place over the top of the bar's front entrance. The A stood for Army approved, but it was meant for all branches of the service. It was illegal for GIs to enter a non A-Sign bar. Each bar was inspected by the military before an A-Sign was given to the place. If there was something about a bar that the inspectors didn't like, then no A- Sign went up. Bars were denied A-Signs because of fire hazards, filth, potential or actual drug activity, etc. If the Okinawan who owned a particular bar didn't like GIs, he could refuse to have an A-Sign. In some non A-Sign bars, any GI who entered would get his butt kicked real bad, real fast, by the Okinawan men hanging out in the bar, and in a few others it was a definite ear-to-ear throat slice for the errant GI. All Okinawan men knew at least the rudiments of karate. Fathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers and school gym teachers taught their male kids karate. Some Okinawan males practiced it religiously, from the time they were little boys until the day they died. There were a few non A-Sign bars which it was OK to go into as far as the bar owners, bartenders and any Okinawan clientele were concerned, but most places that did not have an A-Sign had refused to allow one and thus were 100% dangerous for GIs to enter.
There were good reasons for Okinawan bars not to want American GIs as clientele. Some GIs drinking in bars were ignorant and would start to insult any Okinawans in the place, try to wreck the joint, and then get into a fight with a bunch of Okinawan men who were lifelong karate experts. Sometimes the Okinawans simply needed to have a private peaceful-and-quiet place where there weren't any intrusive foreigners around, or maybe they just wanted some place to enjoy their own culture and music and to have some raucous good times. But the most important reason why it was usually no good to have GIs drinking alcohol in a bar alongside Okinawan men was that at least 99% of the Okinawan men did not want anything to do with Okinawan women who had dated a GI. So fights over women were inevitable in bars where Okinawan women were present and GIs and Okinawan men were drinking and thinking of spending time with the same women.
Only Okinawans worked in the civilian bars on The Rock. In a Gate Two/BC Street type of A-Sign bar, there were bartenders, bar bouncers and doormen who were all good at fighting Karate style. When a fight started in an A-Sign bar, between a GI, or GIs, and one of the Okinawans working there, if the GI, or GIs, didn't give up, back off and get the hell out of there real quick, or get knocked unconscious right away, the unfortunate GIs got the crap Karate kicked out of them by some, or all, of the Okinawan men working in that bar. If any of the fighting occurred outside a bar, then the bouncers and doormen from the other bars in the immediate area came over and jumped into the action and backed up their brethren Okinawans; that way any other GIs in the immediate area would be discouraged from jumping in on the side of the unfortunate GIs. If any GI got knocked on the ground by the bouncers, then the Okinawans all took turns kicking the poor guy.
Rarely would any other GIs step in and try to rescue GIs getting beat up by Okinawans. In most cases, it would have been a bad mistake for the would be rescuers, as they would have been outnumbered and outfought as more Okinawan men in the area jumped into the fight and the Okinawans' Karate strikes and kicks became more intense, numerous, and vicious. The Okinawans had all the martial arts advantages, along with the highest numbers of available and willing street fighters, who often carried knives; consequently, GIs had little chance of winning any street fights against those odds.
One time I saw two big U.S. Army MPs using their night sticks to push two even bigger drunken Marines down the sidewalk on the opposite side of Gate Two Street. There were several angry bar bouncers following close behind them.
One of those Okinawan bouncers was no more than about four feet tall, but he was a regular Mighty Mouse. The top of his head only came up to about the bottom of the two Marines' chests. That short bouncer looked almost as wide, at his thick, muscular shoulders, as he was tall; he had his coal black hair all greased down and slicked back, like a 1950s American-style hoodlum, and he was wearing pointed toe shoes with big Cuban heels that had metal cleats on them. His legs were short and solid, and he moved with a steady stride that showed he had some powerhouse kicking abilities in those short legs. As he walked on that sidewalk with a deep sounding thunk, thunk, thunk from his cleated hoodlum heels, it was clear that those boots were made for stomping.
That little powerhouse bouncer kept inviting the two great big dumb Jar Head Marines to come back and visit him any time. The stupidly unafraid Marines were huge; they had no problem looking back over top of the two MPs, who were six foot plus tall and all beefed up themselves. But the two dumb Jar Heads kept grinning at, and steadily insulting, the Okinawan Mighty Mouse stomping down the sidewalk behind them.
That bouncer was not acting tough because the well-armed MPs were between him and his two foolish adversaries; he was tough. I had been on The Rock long enough by then to be able to see clearly that this pair of drunken Jar Heads was lucky the MPs had encountered them in time. Mighty Mouse would have kicked their giant legs out from under them, with crippling, pain inflicting, precision and then bounced all over their big dumb heads and very large bodies like a gymnastic circus performer doing a double trampoline act.
I myself never had any problems like that on Okinawa because, luckily, that kind GI gentleman who had sat next to me on my first plane ride to The Rock had taught me how to avoid trouble with Karate-trained bar bouncers. He had taught me that they were mostly very nice fellows until some dumb, drunk GI changed their attitude. He had also instructed me on how not to get hustled by bar girls, what the written and unwritten rules of engagement with prostitutes were, and how The Rock's numerous steam bath-massage parlors operated. With all of that helpful information 'under my belt,' the part of my VW Bug money that I didn't have to spend right away on my camera equipment, which I needed for the photo jobs that the 30th Artillery Brigade made me do, lasted through several weeks of shopping, bar hopping and buying drinks for bar girls, plus a few trips to brothels and steam bath-massage parlors.
The bar girls were only there for conversation. A bar girl would intimate and promise sex to a GI as long as he was buying himself and her drinks, but whenever a GI's cash ran out, so did she. My buddy on the plane had taught me never to buy a bar girl more than three drinks, and I never did. I liked their company and would buy them the maximum three drinks while talking to them until they had to move on, when the bartender signaled them to do so or after the girl saw that I wasn't falling for the hustle.
The bar girls, steam-bath girls and prostitutes were all about the same age as I was at the time: twenty years old. I usually enjoyed the company of these working girls, and the feeling often seemed to be mutual. Some of them reminded me of girls back home I had had a crush on during my school days. Others were new flames that I would never get to fully ignite.
After I had finished getting a massage or enjoying some sexcapades, I liked to sit and talk with the young-lady/stranger who had just been so physically intimate with me.
I never used Pidgin English when I talked with Okinawans, it seems to me that when regular English speaking people do that they are belittling Asians. As in, "I come-a from-a Texas, ebby ting-a bigg-a bigg-a in-a Texas." It's downright ignorant and often emotionally cruel.
When I tried to say some Japanese words and phrases to Okinawans, I sounded just as goofy to them as they did to me, when they tried speaking English. Sometimes it ticked me off when some Okinawan dudes laughed at my Japanese language goofs, so I learned to respect all Okinawans' limited abilities to speak English.
I spoke English to Okinawans a tad slower than I normally talked and with clear diction, sans my Baltimore accent. One of the first questions that I usually asked the Okinawan girls was what high school they used to go to. That's what I often used to do when I met American girls. The look I would see in an Okinawan girl's pretty face when I asked her that was one of endearing appreciation of my question. We usually bonded in the next few minutes as if we could go on being together forever.
Unfortunately, in every brothel or massage parlor there was an intercom speaker in the corner of every room and the mamasan or papasan who owned the place, or one of their henchmen, would start yapping over the intercom, telling her to get me out of there. The girl never did that right away. As I would rise in response to the voice on the intercom, she would always put her hand on my thigh and say, "No dats-a OK-a, nex-a customer can-a wait." Then we would talk for a few minutes longer.
The truly great part of it was that many of the girls were desirable in every way.
The worst part of it was that most of them had been sold into their tragic lives by their own fathers.
The majority of the working girls' fathers had borrowed money from the mamasan or papasan who owned the bar, brothel or massage parlor in order to -- and this is a direct quote from two different sweet young ladies with whom I had just made prepurchased love -- "fix-a da house-a, buy-a da car." Each of the two girls told me that right after most of Okinawa's 'working girls' had graduated from high school, they had been forced to 'work' off their fathers' debts.
One girl told me that when she had been assigned to her bedroom in the brothel, where I was visiting her at the time, the mamasan had set her up with a nice selection of new clothes, a small stereo phonograph and some record albums, along with plenty of make-up and toiletries. That girl had never before had so many personal possessions; she was only eighteen years old and from a poor family. Her new possessions made her think that perhaps her life might not be as terrible as she had feared when she had learned that her father had used her as collateral on a loan, and that she had to work as a prostitute to pay off her father's debt. But then the mamasan informed the poor girl that the cost of all of that stuff had been tacked onto her father's debt, plus the cost of her room and board. The mamasan also let the girl know right away that out of every four dollars that a GI paid to have sex with her, only $1.50 went toward paying off her father's debts. Those cruel facts meant that she had to work for several years longer than she had expected and dreaded, often deeply shocking and depressing her.
When the bar, brothel, massage parlor girls were eighteen years old, after studying hard during twelve years of going to school, six days a week, for eleven months a year, life as they had known it was over. If any girl ran away from the mamasan/papasan, who held her in bonded servitude, the Okinawan cops went and fetched her back. It's a small island, after all: where was she going to hide for long?
They were locked into their unfortunate lives.
They were held in human bondage.
I was aware that most of those girls had not chosen to live the lives they were forced to endure. I believed, and still believe, that if love could have blossomed between one of them and myself, I could have dealt with what she had had to do before I met her. The devil be damned, though, they were all owned and operated by the mamasan or papasan for whom they worked. It was no use trying to get emotionally close to one of those attractive young ladies.
The brothel girls usually aged quite prematurely. They were often burnt out physically, mentally and emotionally by the time they were set free from their bonded, sexual servitude. This was drastically, tragically evident in their old and worn-out looking, but still rather young, faces and bodies. Then they had to struggle to survive because they were basically outcast by Okinawan society and their families, and they were rarely still attractive enough for a GI to want them for his live-in girlfriend, wife, or just a sexual partner and partial financial dependent.
If any former bar girls or massage parlor girls had had sexual intercourse with an American man, then 99% of Okinawan men never, ever wanted anything to do with them. Okinawan men believed that their peckers were always shorter and skinnier than those of most American men, so they did not want to try and sexually satisfy themselves with women whom they believed had been stretched inside by us American guys. That is what several Okinawan men told me, as well as some of my GI buddies, during my stay on The Rock. But it probably had more to do with Asian-style racial prejudice and segregation.
Some former Okinawan working girls did marry GIs and went on to have good lives, but most of those had been bar girls or massage-parlor girls who had most likely only had premarital sex with one or two GIs who had been their steady boyfriends.
I don't know how the girls who provided sex for GIs but did not marry one, and who did not marry an Asian man, have managed to get along for the rest of their lives. I would love to see someone write a book about the fates of those former Okinawan working girls.
DAVID R. CREWS is a former " Maine Guide, " Army photographer, steel mill laborer, ferris wheel operator, and cab driver. He writes about life as he knows and sees it. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org . A selection of his journalism and photographs is available at http://www.maineoutdoorstoday.com/crews/.