Occupying Power

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Winner of the Southeast Conference of the Association of Asian Studies book prize for 2014

Choice outstanding academic title of the year, 2012

The year was 1945. Hundreds of thousands of Allied troops poured into war-torn Japan and spread throughout the country, altering both the built environment and the country’s psychological landscape. The effect of this influx on the local population did not lessen in the years following the war’s end. In fact, the presence of foreign servicemen also heightened the visibility of certain others, particularly panpan—streetwalkers—who were objects of their desire.

Occupying Power shows how intimate histories and international relations are interconnected in ways scholars have only begun to explore. Although sex workers became symbols of Japan’s diminished status, by earning scarce dollars they helped jump-start economic recovery. But sex workers who catered to servicemen were nonetheless a frequent target. They were blamed for increases in venereal disease. They were charged with diluting the Japanese race by producing mixed-race offspring. In 1956, Japan passed its first national law against prostitution. Though empowered female legislators had joined with conservatives in this effort to reform and rehabilitate, the law produced an unanticipated effect. By ending a long tradition of sex work regulation, it made sex workers less visible and more vulnerable.This probing history reveals an important but underexplored aspect of the Japanese occupation and its effect on gender and society. It seeks to shift the terms of debate on a number of controversies, including Japan’s history of forced sexual slavery, rape accusations against U.S. servicemen, opposition to U.S. overseas bases, and sexual trafficking.


"With rich data and numerous insights, Occupying Power offers a valuable contribution on a number of levels . . . The book contains detailed descriptions of the complex history of sex work under the Allied Occupation in vivid narratives, which makes it an accessible and useful resource for anyone who is interested in Japanese history and the politics of sex work . . . Kovner's careful and nuanced analysis successfully complicates and challenges conventional approaches for understanding sex work and sex workers in Japan and beyond."
—Kimiko Osawa, Pacific Affairs

"Occupying Power offers the academic researcher a treasure trove of facts, materials, and provocative interpretations."
—Franziska Seraphim, Journal of Asian Studies (review essay)


Sarah Kovner is to be highly commended for writing a book that should be required reading for all those interested in the Allied Occupation and the social and political history of modern Japan."
—Hamish Ion, Monumenta Nipponica


“Relying on a range of Japanese- and English-language sources, this succinct volume offers a thick analysis of sex work in Japan from political, social, economic, and symbolic viewpoints. . . . Occupying Power is literally a powerful book that adds important insight to the fields of modern Japan, women's studies, and 'America in the world.' This study deserves a wide audience.”
—Hiroshi Kitamura, Diplomatic History


“Occupying Power addresses an important subject, the multiple roles and shifting statuses of sex work in occupation-era Japan. . . [P]repares the ground for global perspectives and comparisons on sex work wherever occupation has occurred. Students and scholars will find the book a welcome addition to their readings in the modern history of Japan and the still understudied occupation era in particular. . .[M]akes an exciting contribution to women's, feminist, and sexuality studies.”
—Sabine Frühstück, Journal of Japanese Studies


"Although there have been many books published in recent years dealing either with the post-WW II period of Japanese history or with modern Japanese gender history (whether the focus is on geisha, comfort women, or occupation-era sex workers), this new book by a young historian manages rather brilliantly to advance the discussion of all these interrelated issues. In presentation, the author's prose is entirely free of obfuscation and jargon. Kovner (Univ. of Florida) lays out her evidence so logically and clearly that a neophyte undergraduate could follow the interconnected strands of evidence and argument and the many ways even familiar categories such as geisha have sometimes been misconstrued. The author's fluency in Japanese opens up reams of evidence at a level not always seen in books about Japan. She reaches for and firmly grasps interconnections, whether across national boundaries or periods of time, and frequently with an eloquence that requires rereading and sharing...The rave reviews coming in from leading scholars suggest that Kovner already has vaulted into the front ranks of Japanese scholarship. Summing Up: Essential. All academic levels/libraries."
—R. B. Lyman Jr., Simmons College, in Choice, Editor's Pick


“It is well-researched, thoughtful and courageous, and provides much material for scholarly and social debate. Occupying Power nicely complicates our understanding of the power dynamics of occupation, and of the place of sexual interactions within those dynamics . . . I hope that Kovner's research inspires further interrogations of sexual relations under military occupation.”
—Christine de Matos, Japanese Studies


"Sarah Kovner has tackled a delicate subject with tact, thoughtfulness, and academic rigor. Her important book will be of great interest not just to specialists in Japanese history, but anyone interested in the consequences of war, occupation, and indeed human relations across cultures."
—Ian Buruma, Bard College


"Sarah Kovner has written a path breaking work of Japanese history using a broad range of sources from Japanese, American, and British Commonwealth archives. This book will serve as the base line for studies in the history of sex work in postwar Japan for many years to come. Beyond that, it is an important study of women's history, sexuality, and military occupation in the twentieth century, and should be of interest to scholars in these fields worldwide. "
—William Johnston, Wesleyan University


""Rich, theoretically-informed, and based on extensive archival research in several countries, Sarah Kovner's study sheds new light on a hitherto unexplored aspect of the Allied occupation of Japan--its sexual politics."
—Vera Mackie, University of Wollongong


"This thorough and authoritative study enables the reader to gain a fresh understanding not only of the interactions between Japanese women and postwar occupying forces but also of the nation's view of itself at a time when Japan--despite its persistent reluctance to embrace interracial individuals--was concerned about its 'moral' standing in the international community."
—Akira Iriye, Harvard University