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Occupying Power: Sex Workers and Servicemen in Postwar Japan by Sarah Kovner (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 39, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 444-448 | 10.1353/jjs.2013.0047

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In Japan, “sex work,” to use a broad and comparatively neutral term, has been regulated for several hundred years. Romanticized when performed by the highest echelons of courtesans in literature and art, forced upon colonized girls and women by the Imperial Army, and employed as a symbol of a sociosexual revolution in cinema, the often violent world of commercial sex has been thoroughly examined in Japanese and international historiography. Recently, historians have treated sex work in Japan from a variety of perspectives: as an important window onto Japanese society, from Heianand Kamakura-era Japan in Janet R. Goodwin’s Selling Songs and Smiles: The Sex Trade in Heian and Kamakura Japan to proto-capitalist Edo in Amy Stanley’s Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan; as marketplace of politics in Sheldon Garon’s Molding Japanese Minds; as testing ground for emerging disciplines of the soul and mind in William Johnston’s Geisha, Harlot, Strangler, Star: A Woman, Sex, and Morality in Modern Japan; and as an extension of the battlefield of the Asia Pacific War in a number of books on the Japanese empire’s system of sexual slavery.1 Sarah Kovner’s is the first monograph in English to zoom in on the occupation period. In line with a recent interest among historians of Japan in the occupation, and particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, Kovner dates the period under consideration from 1945 through the years of the Korean War while gesturing here and there toward the notion that in many ways Japan has remained occupied by U.S. armed forces (and preoccupied with U.S. security interests) to this day.

Throughout the war and occupation era, sexuality was a rather complex realm of policymaking whose very basis continued to be the assumption that male sexual desire could be channeled and managed but not repressed. Throughout the modern era, the interest in managing servicemen’s sexual behavior lay primarily in the control of venereal diseases, and this did not change during the occupation. Accordingly, in chapter 1 Kovner lays out the various responses of the U.S. and British Commonwealth forces to the high rate of venereal disease infections among troops. Previous scholarship had suggested the similarity between wartime sexual slavery stations and occupation-era state-run brothels, including the instrumentalization of women’s bodies for goals of national politics. Kovner redirects our attention to an important difference, namely that state-run brothels in the occupation era had to advertise to recruit women, who subsequently worked under miserable conditions but got paid. Contemporaneous debates about these staterun brothels among the occupation authorities primarily focused on their impact on servicemen’s health, particularly venereal disease infection rates. As had been typical of debates about venereal diseases earlier in the twentieth century, occupation officials assumed that Japanese female sex workers were the source of infection, but Kovner shows that the “reservoir of venereal disease” (p. 47)—in the words of one U.S. military commander—was more likely the servicemen themselves. Many had already been infected upon arrival in Japan. Only in 1948 did the rate of venereal disease infection among Japanese female sex workers rise to equal the rate in the U.S. general population at the time. It remained far “below the astronomical rates among both U.S. and BCOF servicemen” (p. 47). Racism, class prejudice, and dominant notions of masculinity, Kovner concludes, proved to be impotent tools in both the Japanese government’s effort to control sex work and the occupation authorities’ attempt to ban it.

Subsequently, the sites and circumstances of servicemen’s encounters with Japanese women continued to multiply, a process that is the object of analysis in chapter 2. While initially rapes occurred, the numbers of reported rapes quickly decreased in the months after occupying forces entered any given area. The reasons for such rapes to occur in the first place, as well as for the reported cases to diminish, were numerous and, as with historiographical findings about rape in the aftermath of World War II elsewhere in the world, Kovner’s conclusions are necessarily inconclusive. The outcomes of rape accusations most likely played a role in discouraging such reports...



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