Despite low crime rate, US military faces no-win situation on Okinawa
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Every time a U.S. servicemember commits a crime in Okinawa, it’s big news.
If it’s a serious offense — such as the recent alleged slaying of a 20-year-old Okinawa woman by a former Marine — it can spark large protests by those who want the American military footprint on the island prefecture to shrink, if not disappear completely.
Over the years, the U.S. military has imposed a number of measures, such as curfews, sensitivity training and limits to off-base drinking, that have significantly reduced the rate of crime among the 50,000 American servicemembers, their families and Defense Department civilian employees.
But no matter what efforts U.S. makes to tamp down the anti-base sentiment, it may be facing a no-win situation. For many Okinawans, every crime is an affront that symbolizes resentment over the disproportionately large U.S. military presence on Okinawa and the prefecture’s complicated relationship with the rest of the country.
Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga won election last year on an anti-base platform, and he subsequently launched a court battle that has stalled relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from busy Ginowan to the less-populated north.
Onaga has used U.S. crimes committed on the island to further fuel the fire, expressing indignation that the military’s efforts haven’t wiped out misbehavior completely, although it’s unclear what more can be done short of banning all U.S. servicemembers and civilian workers from ever leaving their bases.
Behind the resentment
The local sentiment has deep roots, starting with Japan’s colonization of Okinawa, a once-sovereign kingdom, along with World War II’s Battle of Okinawa, which claimed the lives of 140,000 civilians, and the subsequent forcible seizure of wide stretches of land that have become U.S. bases.
“There has always been resentment for crimes committed by members of the U.S. military,” said Osamu Unten, director of the governor’s military base affairs division. “‘Oh no, a military member again,’ is a common reaction among people of Okinawa when a crime involving a servicemember occurs.”
The crimes remind Okinawans of a time under U.S. military control, which included internment camps, and ended with Okinawa’s reversion to Japan in 1972, Unten said.
Prior to reversion, crimes committed by servicemembers were tried by the U.S. military, and Okinawan victims had no say. The Status of Forces Agreement that lays out the rules, regulations and protections for a servicemember in the country was seen as placing troops above the law.
“Even to this day, a crime committed by a member of the U.S. military is seen by the Okinawan people as an extension of that unfortunate time,” Unten said. “It’s been 70 years, but resentment has never dissipated.”
Onaga also has railed against the unfair burden placed upon Okinawa, which hosts more than half of the U.S. military presence in Japan despite accounting for less than 1 percent of the country’s total land mass.
The governor says such a presence hampers development because U.S. bases take up prime land. Six bases lie in a 12-mile stretch in southern and central Okinawa, with five slated for closure in coming years. Approximately 20 percent of base land held in 1972 has already been reverted.
Part of the problem is there has never been a national discussion in Japan on what Okinawa’s role in national security should be, said Kurayoshi Takara, professor emeritus at the University of the Ryukyus and vice governor under Onaga’s predecessor, Hirokazu Nakaima. More than half of all Okinawans polled do not believe mainland Japanese residents understand their military-related problems.
“The majority of people in the mainland acknowledge the importance of U.S. Japan security alliance, yet they allow the unfair concentration of military bases on Okinawa,” Takara said. “All of us need to face the reality and have a cool head to fill the gap and solve Okinawa’s military-related problem, which is not a simple, but complex, equation.”
So when a U.S. servicemember does something wrong, that resentment often boils to the surface. About 2,000 people turned out Sunday to protest the alleged slaying of a Japanese woman by a former Marine who now has a civilian job on Kadena Air Base. Similar large demonstrations occurred earlier this year after a U.S. sailor was charged with raping a Japanese tourist.
Three days after the alleged rape in a Naha hotel, the highest-ranking Marine on Okinawa, Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, visited Onaga to apologize for the incident. Servicemembers were banned from staying at Naha hotels in a clear effort to appease the governor and protesters.
The Okinawa Prefectural Assembly then filed a terse protest resolution with U.S. officials, saying: “Every time a crime or incident involving a member of the U.S. military has occurred, the Okinawa prefectural assembly has lodged a strong protest, calling for education and tighter discipline for servicemembers. Despite such demands, this crime occurred. Preventive measures and education by the U.S. military is not working, to say the least. We cannot help but feel strong indignation.”
Among other things, the assembly called for an apology and restitution to the victim and her family, even before the sailor was charged, tighter discipline for the military community, and an opportunity “to review and drastically change the current Status of Forces Agreement.”
The resolution, citing figures that Onaga also has used, also said SOFA-status personnel had committed 5,896 crimes since 1972. What it didn’t point out is that government figures show the rest of Okinawa’s populace has a crime rate more than twice as high over the same period — 69.7 crimes per 10,000 people, compared with 27.4 by SOFA members.
The SOFA crime rate also has been dropping, police figures show. In 2014, the prefecture saw the lowest level of crime committed by SOFA-status personnel since the reversion. Out of 3,410 arrests prefecture-wide that year, only 27 involved SOFA personnel. There also was just one charge of a heinous felony, a rape, which was later dropped by prosecutors.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation says demographics and socioeconomic factors should be taken into account in crime rates. SOFA members are generally young, and with the steady turnover, the overall age remains frozen. Younger populations usually commit more crimes than older groups.
A devolving situation
Recent polls show the overwhelming majority of Okinawans think U.S. relations are important for “today’s Japan,” and just over half believe the U.S.-Japanese security alliance contributes to Japan’s peace and security. But the number of Okinawans with an unfavorable impression of U.S. forces is on the rise, and the number of those who do not “feel close” to the U.S. doubled to more than 40 percent from the year before, according to a poll conducted last year by the prefectural government’s Regional Security Policy Office.
The overwhelming majority of Okinawans find it unacceptable to delay Futenma’s closure and to keep it at its current location, the poll said. Just shy of 60 percent are against keeping the air base within the prefecture.
Past high-profile crimes have certainly contributed to the people’s ire. In 1995, three U.S. servicemembers abducted and raped a 12-year-old girl. Impassioned protests began for Futenma’s closure and became irrevocably linked to crimes by servicemembers. The protest movement was re-energized in 2012 when two Navy reservists brutally assaulted, robbed and gang-raped a local woman.
The recent incidents stand to further fan the flames of resentment, something U.S. military officials on Okinawa go out of their way to try to counteract.
“It is important to note that the overwhelming majority of American servicemembers, dependents and civilian employees are law abiding, honorable and respectful,” said 1st Lt. George McArthur, a Marine Corps spokesman on Okinawa, adding that they actively participate in events to help the local community.