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19 March 2001

Yanks go get their wet weather gear

Japanese-American relations have sunk to an all-time low, reports Victoria James

By Victoria James

It only happened once. I heard something spoken behind me, then a sound of spitting – or the anticipation of it. I turned, and the elderly face into which I looked showed no trace of the friendliness that usually greets foreigners in rural Japan. “American!” he repeated, bitterly. It was an accusation, not a question.

The past month has not been a good time to be (or look) American in Japan. There was the 9 February sinking of the trawler Ehime Maru by the USS Greeneville submarine; in mid-January, on the island of Okinawa, a US marine corporal was detained for allegedly molesting a schoolgirl in Kin – the same town where a 12-year-old was abducted and raped by three US servicemen in 1995; and on 19 January, as a result of the accusations levelled against the corporal, the Okinawa prefectural assembly unanimously passed a resolution calling for a reduction of Marine personnel in the prefecture. Earl Hailston, commander of the US forces in Okinawa (once independent, the island was incorporated as a prefecture in 1879), responded by circulating an e-mail comprehensively labelling the local governor, both vice-governors and Kin’s Mayor Yoshida as “all nuts and a bunch of wimps”.

Plenty for President George Bush and the Japanese prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, to discuss, then, when they are due to meet for the first time on 19 March – although the Japanese government is currently so mired in a budgetary crisis that Mori might not wish to ruffle Japanese-American relations. And Mori should be keeping his eyes on his approval rating, which plummeted to single figures when it was revealed that he leisurely finished a game of golf after hearing of the sinking of the Ehime Maru.

Brutuses within Mori’s Liberal Democratic Party stopped sharpening their knives long enough to vote down an opposition no-confidence motion earlier this month – but only to prevent disruption to the LDP’s imminent railroading of its fiscal 2001 budget through parliament. Mori is widely expected to resign and he may do so as soon as Wednesday, though more likely by July.

Relocating US personnel to bases on the mainland seems far-fetched. The very statistics that Okinawans cite with outrage – Okinawa comprises just 0.6 per cent of Japan’s total area, but 75 per cent of the land used by US forces; of 47,000 American troops in Japan, Okinawa hosts 27,000 – spell peace of mind for the rest of Japan.

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The clash of interests between the island and the mainland is equally evident in economic arguments for reducing or removing the bases. Okinawan prefectural statistics show that revenue from services to US personnel contributes just 5 per cent to the island’s GDP. Prefectural assemblyman Yoichi Iha informed me that of the island’s 570,000 workers, a mere 8,000 are employed on the bases. A popular domestic tourist destination (where favourite souvenirs include dog-tag necklaces for girls and child-sized Marine gear for boys), Okinawa is not dependent on its US dollars.

Viewed from Tokyo, however, the sums don’t add up. Plugging the gap left by departing American forces with an expanded, home-grown military would not only strain Japan’s postwar pacifist constitution, it might bloat the national budget beyond the enfeebled economy’s ability to deliver.

Not to match US personnel levels would mean accepting reduced national security in what remains, despite the recent north-south rapprochement in Korea, an area of instability and potential conflict. One “patriotic American” addressed himself through newspaper letters pages “to Japanese who object to US troops in Okinawa: isn’t freedom from Chinese domination worth a few rapes, murders and fires in Okinawa?”.

In one way the patriot has a point: viewed pragmatically, Japan’s interests and Okinawa’s simply do not coincide. It was only when the 5,515-tonne USS Greeneville struck the 450-tonne Ehime Maru that the shockwaves were seen as jolting nation and prefecture back into sympathy.

But that moment is passing. Okinawan leaders have, perhaps laudably, refrained from converting popular anger over the incident into political capital. A Yomiuri Shimbun editorial even found, in the loss of the Ehime Maru, an opportunity to “strengthen the foundations” of US-Japanese relations – provided the US commiserates and compensates with due remorse.

Keiichi Inamine, governor of Okinawa prefecture, responding to Lt-Gen Hailston, described Okinawa as a “magma dome”, its tenuously contained anger “the cumulative effect of suffering over the past 56 years of our history”. Japan and the US might find a better image in those typhoons born in Okinawa’s Pacific waters: to be endured during their outbursts, but guaranteed to pass over in the end. Both governments show every sign of shaking out their diplomatic wet-weather gear and sitting tight until the storm dies down.

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