Timothy Woodland is in a grave predicament. The 6-ft. 4-in., 24-year-old Air Force staff sergeant sits in a jail cell in Okinawa, Japan. He goes on trial next month in a proceeding that could last as long as a year. He has already been through Japan's standard detention period--15 days in his case but sometimes as long as 23--during which a suspect is questioned without the presence of a lawyer. Denied bail, Woodland can comfort himself with English-language books, a Bible and American-style meals but no cigarettes, TV or air conditioning in heat that often tops 100[degrees]F. He isn't allowed to speak or write to friends and family. His mother, Arlene Jordan, who works in the engineering-services department at Fort Eustis, the U.S. Army base in Hampton Roads, Va., says she used to chat with her son every week by phone but hasn't communicated with him since his arrest. "Let's just say he is very far away from home," she tells TIME. He may be there for a long time. The African American is charged with raping a young Japanese woman in the early-morning hours of June 29 and, if found guilty, could spend up to 15 years in a Japanese prison.
To the rest of the world, the central question of the trial may be simple: Did Woodland rape the woman, or didn't he? But in Okinawa, the already murky case has been churned into a raging whirl by nationalist politics, screaming media, a half-century of dammed-up local grief and--roiling beneath it all--an undercurrent of racism.
Okinawa hates America, and Okinawa loves America. Okinawa is in fact so American that it can appear deceptively like home to the 25,203 U.S. servicemen stationed on its 38 U.S. military facilities. Reminders of Uncle Sam abound--America Mart, America Hotel and Club America. A two-story emporium called American Depot stands in the shadow of a giant Ferris wheel emblazoned with a Coca-Cola logo. Even at traditional matsuri, or summer festivals, children wave cotton candy, shirtless skateboarders do stunts on open walkways and women in shorts and bikini tops lick jewel-colored snow cones.
Tourists and dream seekers from the Japanese mainland flock to the archipelago's 60 tropical islands--called Okinawa, like the main island--precisely for its slice of red, white and blue. The biggest draws, especially for Japanese women, are the real live Americans. Amejo is local slang for girls who love Americans, but amejo can be found anywhere in Japan where Americans hang out. However, ground zero for amejo and their kokujo subculture is Okinawa.
Kokujo (girls who like black men) paint their skin cocoa, weave their hair in cornrows, dress like Lil' Kim--all the better to attract the prime catch, the black military man. In a country notorious for its disdain for people of color--pale skin has traditionally been the highest mark of beauty--the emergence of a subculture fetishizing blacks raises numerous issues, from the proliferation and power of global image peddlers like MTV to very basic questions of racial and sexual identity.