Okinawa's newspapers: At war with the U.S. military?
Crimes allegedly committed by U.S. troops usually get big play in Okinawa newspapers
CHATAN, Okinawa — Ask military public affairs officers in private and they’ll tell you Okinawa is one of the most political places they’ve been assigned.
They say, if there’s a bad angle to be found in a story about Marines cleaning a local beach, the Japanese-language newspapers will find it. And if there’s a report of a crime committed by an airman or a sailor, protests by island officials and rallies by well-organized anti-base groups are sure to follow.
Crimes by U.S. servicemembers on the Japanese mainland don’t generate the same sense of public outrage. But on Okinawa, even a report of a drunken Marine stumbling into a stranger’s house and falling asleep on the sofa is likely to get at least a formal complaint filed by the local town or city hall.
The irony? Americans connected to the military commit far fewer crimes per capita than their Okinawan counterparts.
In an op-ed piece that ran in the Japan Times in February, frequent contributor Michael Hassett examined crime statistics released by the National Police Agency and determined that the arrest rate for Americans on Okinawa under the Status of Forces Agreement in 2006 was about half that of the prefecture’s general population. He was stunned.
The amount of press given to incidents on Okinawa had made him believe U.S. troops on Okinawa were running amok.
“Shocked? I am!” he wrote. “It’s particularly surprising when you consider that almost half the U.S. military population is 25 years old or younger.”
Hassett said the statistics made him wonder if it was “hypocritical to give such disproportionate media exposure to crimes committed by U.S. servicemembers when the data shows that their adherence to our laws apparently exceeds our own?”
Anti-base groups on Okinawa say they seek to make their home a “military free” island and frequently cite the crimes committed by U.S. troops as a major reason to send them packing. To placate the groups, the U.S. and Japan agreed in 1996 to reduce the amount of land used by the bases on Okinawa by 21 percent.
But the pace of returning the base properties has slowed, and the bases continue to cover nearly a fifth of the prefecture’s main island.
The U.S. military also is a main contributor to Okinawa’s economy — either directly, through land leases, rental housing, off-base shopping and jobs, or indirectly through special subsidies from the national government.
Incentive to complain
There’s a sense in some circles that Okinawa gets noticed by Tokyo only when it complains about the bases. But it dare not complain too loudly, lest the reason for the subsidies disappears.
In a study published in Armed Forces & Society (July 2006), political science professors Alexander Cooley and Kimberly Marten argue that “the Japanese government’s unique system of ‘burden payments’ provides incentives to Okinawa to both highlight the negative effects of the U.S. presence and to support the continuation of the bases for economic reasons.”
The professors date the current anti-base movement to an incident in 1995 when two Marines and a Navy corpsman abducted a 12-year-old schoolgirl from a sidewalk in the village of Kin and took her to a deserted beach, where she was gang raped.
“The incident immediately propelled the U.S. military presence into the national and international spotlight,” they wrote. They say that then-Gov. Masahide Ota was able to manipulate the public outcry into a campaign for a public referendum on the bases with the goal of ridding the island of all U.S. bases by 2015.
He also refused to sign paperwork that would compel anti-base landowners to renew their leases, forcing Tokyo to exercise a little-used law to sign in his place.
But although Okinawans did vote against the bases in 1996, some 40 percent of the registered voters didn’t show. It was an unusually low voter turnout that some observers cited as a “silent no.” It also spelled doom for Ota in his re-election bid two years later, when he was defeated by a candidate from the Liberal Democratic Party, which is committed to preserving the U.S.-Japan security alliance.
Ota’s successor, Keichi Inamine, knocked Ota for being overzealous in his approach to what is commonly called “Okinawa’s burden” of hosting the bulk of U.S. forces in Japan. In the following years, Inamine was able to wheedle economic payoffs and subsidies that help sustain the U.S. presence, Cooley and Marten say.
Their findings are supported by some Japanese political observers.
“In the past, people on the mainland, including the national media, paid little attention to military or any other issues on Okinawa,” Kozo Hiramatsu, professor of acoustic environmental studies at Kyoto University, said in a recent Stars and Stripes interview. “The high-profile 1995 rape incident changed the whole political and social climate surrounding Okinawa.”
Hiramatsu has been involved in Okinawa issues since the early 1980s as one of the leading scholars on the effects of aircraft noise on the local populace.
“The rape incident elevated Okinawan issues to national issues,” he said.
Reducing the burden
Hiramatsu said there may be more to the protests than the desire of activists to evict the military altogether — as the Philippines did — or for officials to complain about the “burden” in order to gain subsides from Tokyo.
“Some groups target these incidents as a means to turn public opinion against the U.S. military in order to prepare the way for Japan adopting a full-fledged military of its own by revising the pacifist Article 9 of the constitution,” he said.
Cooley and Marten contend the subsidies from Tokyo help balance the natural anti-military mind-set of the Okinawa public — an identity formed when the island was forcibly annexed to Japan in 1879, then suffered a battle during World War II in which nearly a third of the islanders died and in which Japanese soldiers ordered civilians to kill themselves rather than be taken prisoner.
That was followed by a 27-year occupation by the U.S. marked by protests and riots against the military presence that radicalized the island’s institutions, especially educators, labor unions and newspapers.
“The island’s two major newspapers — Ryukyu Shimpo and The Okinawa Times — are strongly antibase in their editorial stances and coverage of U.S.-Okinawa community relations,” the Cooley-Marten report states. “Each commands 200,000 readers, giving the antibase view great prominence.”
It’s a claim the editor of The Okinawa Times denies. One U.S. officer said he was told by the editor of another newspaper that his paper’s editorial position was slanted against U.S. bases.
“I was told straight out by an editor that they want us — the military — to go away,” the officer said, asking not to be named.
U.S military and State Department personnel on Okinawa declined to officially comment for this story. However, in October 2005, former U.S. Consul General Thomas G. Reich told a group of local journalists, “This small island probably has the most complex politics of any place in Japan.”
In a recent story in Marine Times, Lt. Gen. Richard Zilmer, the senior U.S. military officer on Okinawa, said a “vocal minority” of Okinawans and a “very, very anti-base media” at times portrays servicemembers as “criminals and thugs.”
“We can never afford to have any incidents happen out in town,” Zilmer told the newspaper. “We want to make sure that everyone — everyone — understands the political implications of bad behavior here in Okinawa.
“This relationship is very, very fragile here with the local community.”
Masaaki Gabe, professor of international relations at the University of the Ryukyus, said Okinawa officials will always use incidents involving SOFA-status personnel to “ensure Tokyo will provide economic incentives” for accepting the current plan to realign U.S. forces in Japan. The plan calls for the eventual transfer of some 8,000 Marines and their families to Guam.
Said Gabe: “Money is a very powerful, manipulative tool.”
And although the Okinawa press may be biased, Gabe said, it also represents the views of its readers.