Friday, March 2, 2012

Sarah Kovner's "Occupying Power"

Sarah Kovner is an assistant professor of History and Asian Studies at the University of Florida. She teaches and conducts research on international and transnational history, with a specialization in war and society. Her new project is on Allied POWs in the Pacific War. She received her A.B. from Princeton in 1995 and her Ph.D. from Columbia in 2004.

Kovner applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Occupying Power: Sex Workers and Servicemen in Postwar Japan, following:
Americans think of the men who won World War II as “the greatest generation.” Policymakers invoke postwar Japan as the greatest occupation, a model for expeditions to Iraq and Afghanistan. It is true that, for instance, Japanese women gained the right to vote and dozens were elected to the Diet. But what is forgotten is how little these women managed to achieve, and how focused they were on problems created or worsened by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of foreign servicemen. This included prostitution, venereal disease, and abandoned biracial children, which many considered a threat to the eugenic health of the nation.

Page 99 comes at a crucial moment in this story:
In 1956, Socialist Fujiwara Michiko, a licensed nurse and a Christian, stood before the Upper House of the Diet and declared that debate was coming to a close on a measure that would, according to Fujiwara, “end the many centuries-long tragic history of Japanese women.” After eighty-five years of struggle against prostitution, “their dearest wishes are finally about to see the light of day. But unlike Fujiwara and her supporters, the state’s intention was not to eradicate prostitution. Instead, the Prostitution Prevention Law aimed to prevent a climate of prostitution, “in view of the fact that it harms human dignity, is against sexual morality, and disturbs virtuous social manners and customs.” But for those opposed to prostitution, any legislation was better than none. Japan’s first national anti-prostitution law passed the Diet in 1956.
The measure targeted the panpan, a term that had once connoted women who had sex with Japanese soldiers in the South Pacific, but now signified the freelance streetwalkers who catered to foreign servicemen. At a time in which people had little to sell but their own bodies, the panpan had played a crucial role in helping to restart the Japanese economy. Now the law would consign them to Dickensian workhouses and restore control of the industry to brothel owners.

This history helps explain why Japanese still have difficulty accepting that “comfort women” were in fact sex slaves (didn’t Japan’s own “comfort women” readily agree to service occupying forces?) Conversely, opposition to U.S. bases often crystallizes around rape accusations, which for many recall the worst days following World War II. If the 1956 law sacrificed sex workers as symbols of national shame, recalling their memory reminds Japanese men and women that they have yet to regain full sovereignty.
Learn more about the book and author at Sarah Kovner's website.

--Marshal Zeringue