Akemi Johnson

Author of
  • Night in the American Village
    The New Press, pub. 2018

Akemi Johnson earned her MFA in fiction writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and an AB in East Asian Studies from Brown University. She has contributed to NPR’s All Things Considered and Code Switch, and her work on Okinawa has been published in The Nation, Roads & Kingdoms, The Asian American Literary Review, among others. She has taught creative writing at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa and the University of Iowa. She was a 2008-2009 Fulbright scholar to Okinawa, and is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination (2016), a residency fellowship from Playa (2013), a John Leggett scholarship from the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference (2007), and the James D. Phelan Award in Literary Arts from the San Francisco Foundation (2006). In 2014, the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education selected her as one of 31 individuals celebrated during Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month for “the rich contributions Asian-Pacific Americans make and have made in the world of words.”

Books by Akemi

Night in the American Village

Circling the Bases on Okinawa

NIGHT IN THE AMERICAN VILLAGE: CIRCLING THE BASES ON OKINAWA is a work of narrative non-fiction by Iowa Writers Workshop graduate Akemi Johnson. Weaving extensive research and reportage with personal experience, NIGHT IN THE AMERICAN VILLAGE is the story of the author’s journey to one of the most remote outposts of the worldwide archipelago of American military installations, the island of Okinawa. There, in the borderlands around the US military bases, she immerses herself in the world of amejo: the local term for women who date primarily American men. Marked by their deep tans, honey-dyed hair, arching acrylic nails, and rough American slang, amejo are Japanese and Okinawan women notorious for their desire and ability to slip into other races and cultures.

The traces of war are still palpable on the island; during the closing months of World War II, the American military invaded, setting off a battle that would take more than one hundred thousand lives, many of them those of Okinawan civilians who committed mass suicide rather than surrender to the Americans. Today, Okinawa is still home to more than thirty American military bases and 25,000 U.S. military personnel — a presence that locals protest, especially after the brutal rape and murder of an Okinawan woman by an ex-US Marine earlier this year. Many American soldiers, sailors and Marines stationed on the island enter into consensual sexual and romantic relationships with amejo — relationships that are subject to the same strains that military marriages (and not-quite-marriages) are everywhere: separation, domestic violence, adultery, substance abuse. But on Okinawa, these hardships are rendered more raw and bare by the island’s isolation, the tense relationship between the islanders and the military, and, of course, the long memories of the battle.

To Akemi Johnson, the daughter of a Japanese American mother and a white American father, Okinawa is more than a historical curiosity but rather a mirror through which she interprets her own hybrid identity. In the course of two extended periods of living on the island, Johnson explores not just the world of amejo, but also the larger world of American-Japanese history and the cultural and sexual politics of the American military empire. She shadows an organization called Women’s Pride, which helps local women in problematic relationships with servicemen; meets a multicultural family which thrives in the disorientingly eclectic culture that has sprouted around the bases; goes to bars where she slips into the role of an amejo and dances with American servicemen; and descends into caves where Okinawans hid and perished during the war, sparking exploration of her own family’s connection to one of the darkest episodes in American history.

In the tradition of Suki Kim’s Without You, There Is No Us, or Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, NIGHT IN THE AMERICAN VILLAGE transports the reader to a foreign, fascinating place, led by a knowing guide with deep insight and a personal stake in the place. It’s the story of a world where cultural and political fault lines force individuals to negotiate their own identities, just as their societies have to negotiate political compromise; where the power of sexual attraction and the power of military force exist simultaneously in parallel and in opposition to one another, where both reinforce and corrupt the other; where cultural appropriation and fetishization are the default mode of life rather than oddity; where the past and the tragedies it holds are never truly past, but rather remain a dynamic and living thing. NIGHT IN THE AMERICAN VILLAGE is beautiful, thought-provoking and timely, at a moment when conflict over a new US base in Okinawa is escalating, threatening to challenge the US-Japan security alliance that places such a heavy military burden on one small island. Meanwhile, US leaders have called for a strategic “pivot to Asia,” and critics question the United States’ continuing “empire of bases” and “Americatowns” that span the globe. NIGHT IN THE AMERICAN VILLAGE offers an intimate window into these current issues, while illuminating legacies of war that linger throughout generations.

Praise for Night in the American Village

Akemi Johnson's book is a lively encounter with identity and American military history in Okinawa and America. By turns intellectual, hip, and sexy, with the backdrop of one of the bloodiest battles of WWII and one of the darkest shadows of the American military empire, this is a new kind of personal historiographic memoir in the line of both THE ARGONAUTS and WOMAN WARRIOR. I admire it greatly for its ferocity, style, and vigor. Hard to define but impossible to put down, it's a wonderful book.

Anthony Swofford, author of JARHEAD
Read More