The Violent Embrace
The Atlanta shooter comes from a culture that connects Asian women to sex and violence. It has its origins in U.S. wars—particularly the Korean War—and is fueled by our continued military presence in Asia.
April 5, 2021
Apr 5, 2021
21 Min read time
The Atlanta shooter comes from a culture that connects Asian women to sex and violence. It has its origins in U.S. wars—particularly the Korean War—and is fueled by our continued military presence in Asia.
After he killed eight people in the Atlanta suburbs on March 16, the perpetrator told police that he “wanted to eliminate” the “temptation” of the massage parlors and spas he had targeted. While it is unclear if he actually said that he wanted to “Kill all Asians”—as Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported on its front page—his actions speak for themselves: of the eight he killed, six were Asian women, four of them Korean.
Activists, feminists, and historians are exhausted from explaining again and again the basic idea that Asian women’s stories and lives matter.
The killings came on the heels of an international outcry following Harvard professor J. Mark Ramseyer’s claim—now known to be based on nonexistent sources—that Korean women’s conscription into imperial Japan’s “comfort women” system from 1932 until 1945 was wholly voluntary. That this even remains a matter of debate is astonishing: Ramseyer’s assertion came despite survivor testimony and over a decade of careful scholarship documenting the enslavement of women from Japan’s colonies into a system of sexual slavery. Yet Ramseyer’s claims are echoed by the Japanese government’s continued attempts to downplay the issue. Activists, feminists, and historians are exhausted from explaining again, and again, the basic idea that Asian women’s stories and lives matter.
I see this exhaustion in the commentary I read from the United States now too, where, following the Atlanta murders and a national wave of anti-Asian violence, Asian American women have taken to telling their own stories, again, with the icy and deliberate anger of those who have been living with, and saying, this their whole lives.
Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, described to the New York Times what men said to her when she arrived in the United States for college in 2000:
It is the ‘Me so horny, I love you long time,’ in like weird accents, and ‘Oh, are you Korean? I love Korea,’ she said, adding that she began to wonder if American men were crazy. They would ‘go into this whole thing about how they served in the military in Korea and how they had this amazing Korean girlfriend that was just like me. And will I be their girlfriend?’
The Atlanta shooter comes from a culture shaped by decades of U.S. empire-building in Asia. In the fantasies of American men, the enduring connection of Asian women to sex, the understanding of Asian women as “submissive” to a dominant American partner, and the shading of sex into violence, has its origins first and foremost in the U.S. wars, occupations, and continued military presence in the region. This has been especially true in East Asia, where Asian women’s voices have gone unheeded while stories about them have been amplified with deadly consequences.
• • •
Americans have long relied on sexual metaphors to figure the country’s relationship with East Asia, a turn of phrase that perhaps titillated the speaker but also cast the imperial presence in Asia as benevolent, pleasurable, and natural. In 1868, for example, U.S. Navy Commodore Robert W. Shufeldt described the Pacific as “the ocean bride of America” and imperialism as sexual consummation:
Let us as Americans—see to it that the ‘bridegroom cometh’ . . . . It is on this ocean that the East & the West have thus come together, reaching the point where search for Empire ceases & human power attains its climax.
In 1882 Shufeldt would be the chief architect of the treaty “opening” Korea to U.S. and Western trade, a relationship he described as “amicable intercourse.”
The defeat of imperial Japan in World War II allowed the United States to build an extensive military presence across East Asia, where it remains entrenched today. At the end of World War II, the U.S. military occupied Japan (1945–52) and the southern half of a newly divided Korea peninsula (1945–48). The United States led one side of the Korean War (1950–53) and maintains a large military presence in Japan and Okinawa as well as in South Korea, where thousands of U.S. soldiers are always ready to “Fight Tonight” in case of renewed war with North Korea.
Americans have long relied on sexual metaphors to figure the country’s relationship with East Asia, casting the imperial presence in Asia as benevolent, pleasurable, and natural.
The opportunity to contain communism in Asia after World War II and ensure the stability of allied governments, no matter how undemocratic, shaped the tenor of American interest in Asia after 1945. This was pretty basic Realpolitik—but culturally, at least, it was imagined in intimate, sexual, or familial terms. As historian Naoko Shibusawa has argued, Japan was understood as a “geisha ally,” passive, defeated, and willing. In Korea the U.S. Army’s Korean Military Advisory Group, whose mission was to train the new South Korean Army, described its work as cultivating a “big–little brother relationship.” It was the stronger, male partnership of the United States that was, in both cases, necessary.
U.S. soldiers, already steeped in an orientalist imaginary populated by sexually submissive “geisha girls,” seductive and dangerous “dragon ladies,” and demure “lotus blossoms,” moved through U.S.-occupied Japan to occupation, then war, in Korea, and avidly took to the thriving economy of sex work in Japan’s geisha houses and Korea’s camptowns. During their tours of duty move between Japan and Korea, soldiers learned to expect Asian women’s sexual embrace as part of their deployment. This was, after all, what they were told “Rest & Relaxation” was all about. One of the most popular cartoons for men serving in Japan and Korea was Navy officer Bill Hume’s Babysan, a series of cheesecake pinups detailing “Babysan’s” charms, instructing soldiers in “how to be occupied while occupying.” It is estimated that of the $185 million spent by U.S. troops in occupied Japan, half went toward the sexual procurement of Asian women.
U.S. military culture during and after World War II encouraged the “healthy” expression of heterosexual masculine desire, provision for which was a constant headache for commanders. That soldiers needed sex, however, was unquestioned. Or as the U.S. brigadier general in Japan, Bryan Milburn, put it in 1950 in a letter about controlling street prostitution, because of their young age, “their comparatively new and strong sex awakening and the abundant opportunity of attractive and submissive girls, it is indeed difficult for the soldier to cope with the situation.” In other words, it was the women who needed regulating, because sex was just what soldiers did.
Soldiers learned to expect Asian women’s sexual embrace as part of their deployment. Indeed, U.S. military culture during and after World War II encouraged the “healthy” expression of heterosexual masculine desire.
Actually, it took quite a bit of planning, institutional collaboration, administrative work, wartime economic deprivation, venereal disease inspection, state oversight, city district planning, and what would now be called sex trafficking to make soldiers’ sexual fantasies about East Asia come true. This was a project not just of the U.S. military but equally of the Japanese and South Korean governments, which were willing to use women’s bodies to cement political alliances and rebuild war-torn economies.
In Japan the U.S. military government forbid “fraternization” between Japanese civilians and U.S. soldiers, with a segregated system of restrooms, trains, and water fountains reminiscent of the Jim Crow South. The one kind of fraternization that was allowed, however, was heterosexual sex. Afraid of an epidemic of rape by Allied soldiers, the Japanese Home Ministry instituted a system of “comfort facilities” across the country in the days after Japan’s defeat, drawing on their recent experience running imperial Japan’s “comfort women” system. Known as the Recreation and Amusement Association (RAA), these brothels were soon endorsed by the U.S. occupying government and the Japanese police. The Japanese government tried to recruit by appealing to Japanese women’s patriotism: the Americans, the government said, needed “welcoming.”
For most women, though, this work wasn’t patriotism but a job in a desperate economic climate. As Otoki, a leader of sex workers from Tokyo’s Yūrakuchō district, explained in a 1947 radio broadcast,
Of course it’s bad to be a hooker. But without relatives or jobs due to the war disaster, how are we supposed to live? . . . There aren’t many of us who do this because we like it.
The RAA came to employ about 70,000 women, many of whom had not been sex workers previously. Like the “comfort women” before them, they were expected to service between fifteen to sixty men per day. It seems that for some RAA workers, their task was more daunting, exhausting, and exploitative than government ads had promised: a nineteen-year-old former typist committed suicide shortly after she began working there. One of the Japanese police chiefs also, it seems, hadn’t realized what he was abetting; it’s reported he wept when he saw how the women were treated on opening day.
The Japanese and South Korean governments were willing to use women’s bodies to cement political alliances and rebuild war-torn economies.
Though the system was immensely popular among U.S. servicemen and spread to twenty cities outside of Tokyo, it was closed by the U.S. military authorities after one year. The official reason given was that it impinged on women’s human rights—but actually, archives reveal that it was because of concern over servicemen’s climbing rates of sexually transmitted infections. Consequently, women working in the privately run system of brothels, bars, and cabarets now came under tighter regulation from the U.S. military and Japanese police forces, with compulsory pelvic exams and disease checks.
• • •
It became Korean War–era GI slang to refer to all Korean women as “moose,” a derivative of the Japanese euphemism musume (娘), unwed girl. In the same fashion, ways of imagining—and sexually regulating—Korean women were borrowed from the Japanese imperial system as well as the U.S. experience of occupation in Japan.
In South Korea the Japanese “comfort women” system was reconfigured to suit the new U.S. occupying power. As the research of Chunghee Sarah Soh and Na Young Lee has found, South Korean brothel owners, police, and petty officials who had procured comfort women for Imperial Japan now sourced women to serve American GIs.
The first Korean camptown—the soon-ubiquitous shantytowns thrown up outside U.S. Korean military installations to provide cheap drinks, women, and Western commodities to soldiers—appeared in Bupyeong just months after the U.S. occupation forces arrived in 1945. It expanded during the war to host 2,000 women workers. As in occupied Japan, the main problem for the U.S. military in Korea was how many troops were contracting STIs; by 1948 nearly 20 percent of American troops in Korea were hospitalized for this reason, reportedly the highest in the Far East Command.
Shantytowns were thrown up outside U.S. Korean military installations to provide cheap drinks, women, and Western commodities to soldiers.
In an effort to provide “healthy recreational opportunities” for servicemen, the U.S. Army built “R&R” facilities in 1947, alongside shopping centers for U.S. products, enshrining the camptown—the gijichon—into U.S. military practice in Korea. With the war causing widespread dislocation and poverty for Koreans, these military installations offered the possibility of steady work as houseboys, janitors, housekeepers, cooks, secretaries, live-in girlfriends, sex workers, and black marketeers, and provided access to “luxury” goods such as toothpaste, cigarettes, and liquor.
For many women in Korea, working in the bars and hostess clubs or securing an American boyfriend was a way to support their families and communities, despite the shunning they often received as a yanggongju, “Western princess,” or yanggalbo, “Western whore.” For a few, though, especially during the 1950–1953 war years, it was not a question of choice. Some of the first camptown women were kidnapped or sold by their families into prostitution. One British war journalist, a lecturer at Warwick College, wrote of the “flourishing trade in girls to serve the needs of the US Army,” in which the South Korean police “supplied the refugee girls.”
• • •
What this unequal sexualized landscape produced, overlain with the violence of war and the impositions of occupation duty, was an epidemic of rape, not only in the prostitution districts and camptowns, but also spilling out well beyond them. Not all soldiers were rapists, of course. But in such a context—where it was primarily soldiers’ health, needs, and lust that mattered, not those of local women—it is no surprise that some soldiers took this blend of political and sexual dominance to a violent extreme.
Overlain with the violence of war and the impositions of occupation duty, an unequal sexualized landscape produced an epidemic of rape.
As the Japanese occupation continued and the Korean War began in 1950, Japan came to be seen by GIs as an erotic playground in which sex and dating shaded easily into sexual violence, becoming part of the U.S. military’s lexicon of pleasures: R&R leave, in Korean War–era GI slang, could also mean “Rape & Restitution” or “Rape & Ruin.” Japanese women reported being abducted and raped by servicemen while walking home at night, on empty buses, or in their homes. Gang rape became a particularly common practice of soldiers in both Japan and in Korea. In Yokohama, for example, an eleven-year-old Japanese boy witnessed five U.S. GIs rape a twenty-six-year-old woman and then take a photograph of her vagina.
In October 1950 General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the U.S. military government in Japan, attested to the “complete camaraderie” between Japanese and Americans—a statement possible only to a mind where “Rest & Relaxation” was the same thing as “Rape & Restitution.” Japanese women and men, however, saw the occupation differently and complained, protested, and organized against their treatment: the U.S. military archives are full of their letters and petitions for redress. But in this landscape, reporting rape could lead to further stigmatization: at least one Japanese woman reporting her rape was treated like a prostitute and put in a guarded venereal disease hospital.
The Korean War emerged in this climate, and the rape of Korean women by U.S. and allied South Korean and United Nations forces took on epidemic proportions. Sometimes it was used as a weapon of war: “sexual punishment” of suspected communist women by right-wing Korean youth groups and U.S.-allied South Korean military and police forces was frequent during the war. One North Korean eyewitness described how 300 politically suspect Korean women were held in a warehouse and used at will by U.S. soldiers after the recapture of Seoul in 1950.
R&R leave, in Korean War–era GI slang, could mean “Rape & Restitution” or “Rape & Ruin.” In this landscape, reporting rape could lead to the further stigmatization of Japanese women.
It also became common wartime practice, as the fighting—in which young and largely untrained GIs fought a guerrilla war in which all Korean civilians were “suspect”—moved up and down the Korean peninsula in its first chaotic year. U.S. troops were said to entice young Korean refugee girls across the Naktong River to rape them. Memoirs, oral histories, and journalists’ accounts describe families either hiding their daughters or trading time with their daughters to soldiers in exchange for cigarettes or gum. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Bussey remembered overhearing his troops discussing how best to “rape a woman.” One U.S. Army chaplain reported to General Matthew Ridgway a case of seven U.S. soldiers caught raping Korean women in Pyongyang and complained that the soldiers were released unpunished. In war journalists’ accounts, there are numerous allusions to “the constant raping” behind the battlelines; in the internal archives of the U.S. Army, there are continual orders from commanders to stop raping.
Because Asian women’s voices and lives were neglected, accounting for the full extent of rape and sexual assault through U.S. military papers is nearly impossible. In Korea, for example, the Army’s partial tabulation of reported rape cases only appears as part of a general survey to determine the workload of Criminal Investigative staff. For a report to make it into military files, it had to be a formal complaint lodged by the Korean woman or her family, a fraught undertaking in the midst of active combat, language barriers, and mutual distrust. But the silence in U.S. accounts is belied by the memory of Korean women and men, for whom rape or fear of rape is one of the most enduring memories of the war.
An international fact-finding commission organized by the Women’s International Democratic Federation, an antifascist women’s organization recognized by the United Nations, visited North Korea in May 1951 and carefully recorded evidence and testimony of the systematic use of sexual torture against North Korean women by U.S., UN, and Republic of Korea (ROK) forces, including the cutting off of breasts (common on all sides in World War II’s Pacific theater), kidnapping and forced prostitution, rape, and extremely brutal rapes-then-murders. As historian Suzy Kim’s research has shown, the commission’s report was undertaken by longtime committed peace activists independent of North Korean or communist forces, and its findings are wholly consistent with what we can glean from the archives.
Because Asian women’s voices and lives were neglected, it is nearly impossible to account for the full extent of rape and sexual assault through U.S. military papers.
Many U.S. Army commanders continually denounced U.S. soldiers’ crimes against Korean civilians, including rape, but—at least in their public statements—understood these crimes as an exception to an otherwise amicable relationship. In March 1951 Army General Matthew Ridgway sent a letter to all subordinate commands arguing that the “gross misconduct of a few members,” including instances of “molestation,” “provides grist for the vicious Communist propaganda mill in its effort to belittle our mission in Korea.” Even if Ridgway’s concern was truly for the women and not the Army’s image, it’s quite clear that violence in an unequal, sexualized, militarized environment could not be controlled.
• • •
After the war U.S. troops stayed on in Korea, welcomed by Republic of Korea president Syngman Rhee, who was single-mindedly focused on maintaining the U.S. military presence in order to guard against threats from North Korea. If, for U.S. commanders, the camptowns were a necessary evil, for Rhee they were issues of national security, necessary to maintaining friendly U.S.–ROK relations as well as boosting the national economy, and his administration formally organized the camptowns into an R&R system at the end of the war. As Americans stayed on, the camptowns flourished, particularly under South Korea’s successive military dictatorships. During the 1960s, as political scientist Katharine Moon has found, the U.S. military presence accounted for 25 percent of the ROK’s economy, and the state was happy to offer cheap sexual access to some of its own citizens in order to support the country financially.
The reliance of the South Korean state on camptown women’s labor, however, did not mean that the women working in them were welcomed back into South Korean society or that they were well-paid or protected from extortion and violence. In the 1970s a joint U.S.-Korean effort to “clean up” the camptowns focused mainly on regulating sexually transmitted diseases. Largely, this led to criminalizing the women working in them. Among other indignities, sex workers were now required to wear a large tag listing their disease status, their most recent medical check, and last menstrual cycle for clients to consult prior to purchasing sex.
As it had been earlier, not all women were working in the camptowns by choice. As Park Young-ja remembered of working in the gijichons in the late 1960s and early ’70s:
They say we walked into gijichon on our own, but we were cheated by job-placement agencies and were held in debt to pimps. I was only a teenager and I had to receive at least five G.I.s every day with no day off. When I ran away, they caught and beat me, raising my debt.
And even for those not held in debt like Park, there was the constant negotiation of living within two states who used their bodies as political collateral. Jeon found work in the camptown in Dongduchon, near the DMZ, in 1956, and stayed through the 1960s:
The more I think about my life, the more I think women like me were the biggest sacrifice for my country’s alliance with the Americans. Looking back, I think my body was not mine, but the government’s and the US military’s.
Some of these women married American soldiers and came to the United States as war brides, numbering nearly 100,000 emigrants between 1950 and 1989. Yong Ae Yue, one of the women killed in the March 16 attacks, came to the United States from South Korea in just this way after marrying a U.S. soldier in 1979.
Of course women developed survival strategies and support networks and organized to protect themselves and each other.
Though some of these were love matches, others were more clearly products of the unequal power dynamic under which they were formed, as historian Ji-Yeon Yuh’s oral history–based research with Korean military brides has found. Domestic violence, abusive forms of control, and desertions were common, and the women rarely had the mobility offered by English language fluency, driver’s licenses, or financial independence. Sil Dong Kim, a graduate student at the University of Washington, conducted interviews in the mid-1970s with Korean military brides in the towns near Ft. Lewis, and found that stories like this one were not exceptional:
Even though he beats me up almost every other day, I could not leave him. He brings money in family. Without him, I don’t think I could survive. If I have had good brain and English, I wouldn’t take this ordeal. I don’t have any education. I don’t speak English. I don’t know how to drive. I have two infants. What can I do? I can’t even go back into the street again. I just have to suffer through this until I learn some English and until the kids grow up, I am just stuck to this S.O.B.
Of course women developed survival strategies and support networks and organized to protect themselves and each other. Near Ft. Lewis, for example, the Korean Women’s Association formed in 1972, offering English classes and access to social services. The organization is still active today.
In Korea Durebang (My Sister’s Place) was established in Uijongbu in 1986 by women activists. It provided community support, shelter, services, and work at the organization’s bakery to women in the camptowns hoping to transition out of working at the clubs; other local women-run centers now exist elsewhere in the country. The horrifying murder and sexual torture of Yun Geum-i by a U.S. serviceman in October in 1992 served to catalyze local communities to address the inequities of living in the camptowns. And since 2014 former sex workers in Korea—including Park Young-ja—have lodged successful lawsuits against the Korean government for abetting the camptown system, and for forcing women to undergo mandatory pelvic exams and disease checks. What’s more, today—in the wake of 2004’s harsh anti-prostitution law—there is a thriving movement of Korean sex workers advocating for decriminalization, rights and recognition, and better working conditions. Most notable among these is the Hanteo National Union, which represents around 15,000 sex workers of all genders.
• • •
In 1971 Evelyn Yoshimura contributed a blistering polemic, “GIs and Asian Women,” to Roots, an edited collection which became a founding text of the new Asian American movement, buoyed by the liberation movements of the 1960s and spurred on by the U.S. war in Vietnam. “As long as there are U.S. troops in Asia,” Yoshimura wrote,
As long as the U.S. government and the Military wage wars of aggression against Asian people, racism against Asians will serve the interest of this country. . . . We, as Asian Americans cannot divorce ourselves from this reality, and we as Asian American women cannot separate ourselves from our Asian counterparts. . . . The mentality that keeps Suzy Wong, Madam Butterfly and gookism alive; the mentality that turns human beings into racist, murdering soldiers, also keeps Asian Americans from being able to live and feel like human beings.
In the past two decades, the U.S. military has bent its resources toward further tightening regulations on soldiers and developing a culture that discourages what it once encouraged as a “perk” for GIs serving in East Asia. “Houses of prostitution” are off-limits to all U.S. military personnel today, but they still exist outside the gates of U.S. bases—staffed, in Korea these days, by Filipina and Russian immigrant women.
But despite these changes, the legacy of decades of sexualized war and occupation is impossible to neatly place “off limits,” creating an environment in the United States in which men like the Atlanta shooter can see Asian American women as the outlet for any urges they have—sexual, racist, or destructive.
This isn’t just what men do “on a really bad day,” as the Cherokee County sheriff first suggested. This is what men have been taught to do.
We know this because Asian and Asian American women have been saying it, writing it, yelling it, organizing against it, living despite it, for decades; we know this because historians and scholars in multiple countries have documented it in minute detail; we know this because it was built on our watch with our tax dollars. What we lack here is not information or empirical evidence. What we lack is an attendance to Asian and Asian American women’s stories. This isn’t just what men do “on a really bad day,” as the Cherokee County sheriff first suggested. This is what men have been taught to do.
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April 05, 2021
21 Min read time