Off-base bar owners lamenting military curfew in Japan
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The colorful neon signs still blaze at bars outside Kadena Air Base, but the front doors are shut and there are no Americans in sight in the normally bustling Okinawa entertainment district.
It’s a scene that’s become commonplace at off-base watering holes frequented by U.S. forces across Japan since a curfew was imposed last Friday on all American military personnel following the alleged assault and rape of an Okinawan woman by two U.S. sailors.
But being inside the gates doesn’t mean troops are heading home for warm milk and an early bedtime. Business is booming at on-base clubs, which are hiring more bar staff and even extending hours to cope with a massive influx of patrons seeking late-night entertainment.
For Tsutomu Arakaki, owner of Amazonesu, one of the oldest bars near Kadena, it’s a little too much déjà vu. A similar curfew 14 years ago forced him to shut down for a year. Now he’s planning to collect signatures on a petition seeking compensation from the Japanese government for losses caused by the latest crackdown.
“By 9:30 p.m. (last Friday), all Americans had disappeared,” he said Tuesday night. “Sales proceeds have dropped to one-tenth.”
Ryojin Kuwae, a former chair of the nearby Nakanomachi Business Owners’ Association, said many bar owners near the base are suffering.
“Whenever servicemembers commit a wrongdoing, it’s us Okinawans who are… punished,” he said.
One place near Kadena that appears to be less affected is Club Queen, which catered to servicemembers a few years ago but, nowadays, tries to draw in mostly Japanese clientele, according to manager Masahide Nakasone.
“We are not affected by the curfew at all,” he said. “It’s about time for us to stop clinging to the business that is forever vulnerable to the situation and reasons of the military.”
Sasebo’s bar district, known as “Sailor Town,” was more of a ghost town after 11 p.m. Tuesday with only a few Japanese customers drinking alongside American civilians and contractors.
“It’s affecting everybody,” said Taro Kurosaki, a bartender at Sasebo’s G-Rock club. “The numbers have dwindled. I walk outside and there’s nobody there.”
Kurosaki said he supports the curfew but that it’s forced his bar to close early this week and will result in staff losing shifts from next month.
“We’re hurting on the weekend,” he said. “It’s kind of obvious already.”
At 10 p.m. Monday, off-duty U.S. airmen were still drinking alongside Japanese and Filipina patrons at pubs on Fussa’s Bar Row, long a popular night spot for servicemembers stationed at nearby Yokota Air Base in Tokyo.
The airmen were unanimous in their condemnation of the two sailors who are in custody on Okinawa, but none supported the curfew.
Rape is a horrible thing, “but stuff like this does happen,” said Kamikaze bar patron, Senior Airman Andrew Van Langendonk, 23, of Gainesville, Fla., who has been hanging out on Bar Row several times a week since he came to Japan two years ago.
“From a young airman’s perspective, we are being made to pay for something another branch did in another part of Japan… I don’t see why we should be punished,” he said.
Van Langendonk, who is moving to Kunsan Air Base in South Korea this month, said he went to Yokota’s overcrowded Enlisted Club on Saturday because he didn’t want to violate the curfew.
“It was miserable,” he said. “It was so hot, and it took me 40 minutes to get a drink. It was my last weekend in Japan, and I couldn’t go out and enjoy myself.”
The Enlisted Club was packed with twice as many customers as usual over the weekend, according to manager Johnathan Boyd.
“Both nights (Friday and Saturday) we saw a significant increase in business,” he said. “Of course that’s due to the curfew.”
The club is looking to hire more bartenders and open up its ballroom on the weekends to cope with the crowds, Boyd said, adding that he’s also hoping to fly in some live entertainment from the U.S.
Extra money spent at the club will help fund quality-of-life programs on the base, he said.
Another airman at Bar Row on Tuesday, Sgt. James Balajadia, 25, of Guam, said he thought leaders were trying to protect servicemembers from a Japanese backlash over the alleged rape. But the curfew goes too far, he said.
“Nobody likes to be treated like a kid when you are a man,” he said. “They are trying to keep us safe… (but) I’ve never had a Japanese person be mean to me because I’m American.”
Kamikaze’s owner Marco Fukumoto, who’s been running bars in Fussa for 15 years, said business has dropped 80 percent since the curfew began and that he expects to lose thousands of dollars each week until it is rescinded.
“Just two people did it (the alleged rape) so why is it everybody’s fault?” he asked.
Other Bar Row pub owners were reluctant to be quoted by name but all said they were angry about the curfew and worried they will be driven out of business if it continues.
“The authorities are wrecking our businesses,” said the owner of Els Bar, an African migrant who identified himself only as Ernest. “We want to know how long it will go on. If we know it is going to last a long time, we are going to shut our bars down.”
He said he was forced to fire five of his six female hostesses this week because he doesn’t have enough customers.
The bar owners, who want to talk to base officials as soon as possible about the curfew, said it has already ruined plans for a large Halloween party in the district. Ernest was disappointed that he might not get to wear the expensive white bear costume that he bought for the event, he said.
As the clock ticked closer to 11 p.m., the airmen said sayonara to their Japanese friends.
“This curfew is going to cause more problems than it solves,” Van Langendonk said before he headed for the gate.
Stars and Stripes reporter Matt Burke contributed to this report.