Dr. Sarah Kovner

The experience of study abroad, as many UF undergrads and grads can attest, is an invaluable one that pays dividends for years.  For one of the History Department’s professors, study abroad eventually led to a book project that forces us to rethink many of the notions that we have about Japan and its history.

Professor Sarah Kovner spent her third year of college in Kyoto, where a favorite professor led a walking tour that included a Korean neighborhood. It was her first introduction to the fact that even Japan, famous for its sense of national unity, actually contains great social diversity. Since then, she has focused on how the daily interactions of people with little power can assume great importance not just in one society, but in relations between countries.

Her new book Occupying Power: Sex Workers and Servicemen in Postwar Japan (Stanford University Press, 2012), uses the politics of paid sex to explore everyday life for Japanese as well as foreign servicemen. The book focuses on the Occupation (1945-1952), when former enemies had to build a new society. For many Japanese ostracizing the women who consorted with servicemen was a way to express an abiding nationalism. In researching the book, Kovner worked in archives in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, and Wellington as well as Washington and Tokyo, and she also made site visits to several Japanese base towns.

As prostitution spread outside red light districts into residential areas, female politicians, journalists, and activists began to organize to pass anti-prostitution legislation.  But sex workers played a key economic role in their communities, with the money they made and the businesses they supported. The struggle culminated in 1956, when the Diet passed Japan’s first national law against prostitution, the end of a three-hundred-year tradition of tolerating sex work.

Kovner’s new book project, “Guards and Prisoners in the Pacific War,” shows how she continues to focus on the history of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. It will be the first comprehensive account to give equal weight to guards and prisoners, and to relate the internal life of camps to the larger context of diplomacy and international law. The perceived lessons of this experience changed international law, and led to new rules to safeguard civilian internees and protect POWs from arbitrary trial and punishment – rules that have been crucial in present-day controversies over how the U.S. treats its own captives.

To find out more about Dr. Kovner’s research, visit her website at sarahkovner.com.