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The Asian Mystique: An Uncomfortable Past

Why does the sex trade go hand in hand with U.S. military forces stationed in Asia?

August 11, 2005

Why does the sex trade go hand in hand with U.S. military forces stationed in Asia?

To cope with the hundreds of thousands of U.S. servicemen descending on Japan, the government Home Ministry discreetly told police throughout the country to set up “comfort facilities” with female volunteers to service the Americans and thereby ensure the chastity of the “good” women of Japan.

The same had been done for the Dutch traders and Perry’s sailors 300 years and 100 years before.

But professional prostitutes were reluctant to sign up, fearing that the scary Americans portrayed in wartime propaganda would have enormous sex organs.

So, in the Ginza district of downtown Tokyo, comfort facility organizers recruited ordinary women with a sign that read: “As part of urgent national facilities to deal with the postwar, we are seeking the active cooperation of new Japanese women to participate in the great task of comforting the occupation force.”

Within a month, 1,360 women in Tokyo had enlisted in the R.A.A., or Recreation and Amusement Association, pledging “to defend and nurture the purity of our race by offering ourselves for the defense of the national polity.”

What happened next was ghastly. Several hundred GIs on the first day the facility opened on August 27, 1945, found their way to the R.A.A. in Tokyo’s Omori district, where a small number of mostly inexperienced recruits had gathered. Neither beds, futons nor room partitions were yet available, and fornication took place — without privacy — everywhere, even in the corridors.

Later Japanese accounts speak of shameless “animalistic intercourse” that showed the “true colors” of so-called American civilization. By one estimate, R.A.A. women engaged between 15 and 60 GIs a day. A 19-year-old who had previously been a typist committed suicide almost immediately. Some women broke down or deserted.

By mid-September, however, this grotesque exercise in “people’s diplomacy” had become more or less routine.” The price for one visit was fifteen yen, about the price of half a pack of cigarettes on the black market.

Initially, the Japanese women segregated for use by black soldiers were said to have been horrified — until they discovered that many black GIs, perhaps in kinship with fellow non-whites, treated the women more kindly than white GIs did.

This wasn’t to last, however. An alarming rise in venereal disease among the troops prompted authorities to cancel the R.A.A. program after just five months. Some 90% of the women tested positive for infection. The number of reported rapes then rose in Japan, from about 40 per day while the R.A.A. was operating, to 330 per day after it closed.

Servicemen then took up the company of “panpan” and “geesha girls,” false geisha who may or may not have dressed in kimono instead of modern dress, but who prostituted themselves for GIs. They gave Americans an incorrect impression of the real geisha world where geisha means “arts person” trained in music and dance, not in the art of sexual pleasure.

Because of the war, the number of real geisha had declined to 1,695 in Tokyo, down from a peak of 80,000 in the 1920s. But the number of prostitutes — “geesha” and “panpan” — approached 70,000 when the trade was formally legalized in December 1946.

They thronged by the hundreds around the railway arches of Ginza near General Macarthur’s headquarters, pulling GIs into the shadows and begging for cigarettes, gum or even food. “Geesha girl” became a term for anyone of dubious morality, from bar hostesses to streetwalkers.

The promiscuity led the Japanese government to start promoting the image of Japanese women as devoted wives and mothers, according to several Japanese scholars of the period. The notion that a “panpan” girl or “geesha girl” personified Japanese womanhood suggested that Japanese society was morally and culturally inferior to the West.

To counter this, the government emphasized the social morals of the Samurai who had repressed widespread sexual rights that women had enjoyed in the previous Heian period, and asked women to be loyal, subordinate and self-sacrificing keepers of the moral code.

The discomfort in U.S. society was indeed palpable as well. Between the end of World War II and the end of the Vietnam War, nearly 172,000 Asian women came to the United States as “war brides” — 66,681 Japanese, 51,747 Filipinas, 28,205 Koreans, 11,166 Thais, 8,040 Vietnamese and at least 6,000 Chinese, according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Media articles cast them as “Madame Butterflies” who would have a hard time adapting to middle-class American life. Some states kept laws banning Caucasians from marrying other races on the books until the U.S. Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional in 1967.

American GIs did not bring prostitution to Asia. It has thrived in almost every country for centuries. But wherever there are single men with money, prostitution is sure to follow. And so, a sex industry catering mainly to American GIs exploded with the rise of the U.S. military presence in Asia. Many of these spots still thrive today, drawing in foreign men and Asian girls from everywhere.

The U-Tapao air base in Thailand fostered the growth of the notorious sex-and-sand resort Pattaya. The Patpong sex strip of Bangkok was created as a sexual playland to draw GIs on R&R, or Rest and Relaxation, from Vietnam (or rather, as they called it, I&I — Intoxication and Intercourse).

In Seoul, the Itaewon district, or “America in Seoul” with its seedy strip clubs on ‘Hooker Hill,” expanded to meet the needs of GIs from the 8th U.S. Army Headquarters nearby.

“The Gate” outside Gate 2 of Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, as well as a few other strips near the bases, still do a hopping sex trade. In the Philippines, the sex strip on Fields Avenue outside the old Clark Air Base in Angeles City remains infamous, even though U.S. bases in the Philippines closed in the early 1990s.

The streets of Saigon, once teeming with prostitutes servicing GIs in the early 1970s, have started to purr with prurient nightlife again in recent years following a Communism-imposed hiatus that lasted into the 1990s.

From the book “The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls and Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient” by Sheridan Prasso, Copyright© 2005. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group.