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Published:February 3rd, 2010 09:29 EST
US Military in Okinawa

Crime and the US Military in Okinawa

By Geoff Dean

 The issue that has been bedeviling the US-Japan relationship for some time now is the relocation of US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa or out of the island prefecture. I have looked at the progression of this issue and debate from time to time. I guess now is another time.

US Military in Okinawa

 On the American side, there have been growing calls (albeit not at the highest levels) for a Plan B, now that Japan has come out strongly against a move to Nago/Henoko Beach. The latest came from Kurt Campbell, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (can he get all that on his business card?) who urged Japan to carry out the current Futenma to Nago plan without modifications but also added the US is "open to explore" other options. How much of this is offering "face-saving" consultations to the Japanese side and how much is a true willingness to reopen the negotiations remains to be seen.

 On the Japanese side, with the election of a strongly anti-base relocation mayor in Nago and with the PM and his coalition partners strongly seeking relocation out of the prefecture and if possible, out of Japan, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada suggested and was seconded by the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary that the best option may be to leave the base where it is. This blatant and lame contradiction of the PM`s policy. not surprisingly, set off a round of accusations of governmental incompetence regarding the handling of the base issue.

 Why is there such a strong push to get the bases out of Okinawa? Wouldn`t bases benefit the citizens of Okinawa economically?

 Probably, they would. But Okinawa`s economy is built on tourism and military bases taking up some 30% of the island severely reduces potential tourism revenue, say some. Furthermore, Henoko Beach features coral reefs and other environmentally sensitive areas that a military base will surely not be good for. Others point to the "unreasonable burden" that Okinawa bares compared to the rest of Japan, where US military bases are not nearly as concentrated and are located away from major population areas. Some Okinawans argue that military bases, far from making Okinawa safe, make it a target that it otherwise would not be.

 Still, trumping all of these concerns, surely, is the emotional issue of "military crime". Rightly or wrongly (and surely there is some xenophobia involved), Okinawans feel they are under seige from a "crime wave" by US military personnel. And that, due to the SOFA Agreement (which the Hatoyama government seeks to change), military personnel are frequently returned to their base for trial/extradition to the US after a crime as opposed to being tried under Japanese law, which again, rightly or wrongly, seems to suggest to some that US military criminals get off easy.

 Statistically, crimes committed by the US military are not more than those of the general Okinawan public but the nature of the crimes and especially the way they are played up in the media makes them seem most sensational. When a recent case of hit and run charged to a military member in Okinawa was discussed in the Japanese media, previous cases of US military members involved in crime in Okinawa, were invariably listed. Dramatic background music was played (Japanese news stories often have background music that dramatizes and emotionalizes the story).

 The case of the 1995 rape of a school girl by three US servicemen based in Okinawa was brought up again and again, with interviews of the victim`s family, her teachers, and local residents, even though it had no direct connection to the hit and run case. It served to reinforce the feeling that US Military Bases, especially in Okinawa, are hotbeds of crime. Perhaps, whether that is statistically true or not, is besides the point.

 I have visited Okinawa only once (and had to bypass two bases to get to my hotel) but I have had some experience with US Military personnel at Camp Fuji in central Japan. When I took a bus to and from a campsite near the base of Mt. Fuji (one I have visited 6 or 7 times) with my family, there were always a few US military members on the bus. While the rest of the bus was deathly silent (Japanese people do not make noise on public transportation), the soldiers were invariably loud, cracking jokes in English, and, to Japanese people at least, most intimidating. Once, a member ordered the bus driver to stop where there was no bus stop so he could get off. The bus driver complied, even though it was highly irregular. He was visibly shaken by the "confrontation" and cursed the American (after he was gone).

 My point is that for Japanese people, the US Military seems a menace rather than a protector. I`m sure that many members of the US Military are adapted to Japanese culture and sensitive. But it only takes a few to set in stone the image that a)the military are criminals and b)they get off easy. As long as the media reinforces this and the US Military members do not do more to "combat" the impression, I fear the Futenma impasse may not be truly settled for quite a long time.