Politics play role in Tokyo's reaction to US crime on Okinawa
June 16, 2016
TOKYO — A servicemember who drives drunk and injures someone in the United States would likely get prosecuted and possibly become the subject of a brief news story.
In Japan, the same type of incident has spurred apologies from flag officers, an ambassador and senior officials in Washington, galvanized protesters and energized politicians calling for changes that would alter the security architecture of the world’s most populous region.
For thousands of sailors serving in Japan, a series of high-profile arrests means no alcohol — not even at home — as the Navy works on crime-prevention measures, with an eye toward controlling any damage done to its relationship with Japan.
While the Navy’s orders are among the most stringent, no service has been immune from criminal incidents and liberty restrictions here in recent years. A curfew for all troops has been in place since late 2012.
The common thread in speeches, when military leaders announce restrictions, is that crime undermines alliances and affects America’s ability to keep the peace in a tense regional environment that includes provocative North Korea and an increasingly aggressive China.
Stars and Stripes reviewed polls and spoke with several Japanese security analysts, as well as Japanese citizens, about crime’s effect on the U.S.-Japan alliance and the broader relationship between Americans and Japanese.
Most analysts found agreement that apologies and restrictions give a Japanese government predisposed to a strong alliance the political cover to maintain its support, and that the U.S.-Japan alliance is generally viewed positively in mainland Japan.
The potential unraveling point is Okinawa, an island of 1.4 million where half of all U.S. military personnel are stationed, and where crime is more likely to become headline news. But even in Okinawa, in a neighborhood that was home to a woman allegedly murdered by a base civilian worker, a nuanced view emerged among residents.
Why the Navy cracked down
U.S. 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin cited the June arrest of Petty Officer 2nd Class Aimee Mejia, 21, for driving drunk on the wrong side of an Okinawa highway and striking two vehicles, as the incident that put matters “over the edge.”
However, a negative trend started in the first two months of 2016, with 13 “foreign criminal jurisdiction” cases filed by Navy units, according to Naval Forces Japan officials. Such cases are potential criminal acts where Japan retains the authority to prosecute. If the rate for January and February had continued for the rest of 2016, it would have represented a more than 50 percent rise in total FCJ incidents, Navy officials said.
While figures from March through June were not yet available, multiple serious incidents that drew national attention occurred.
“We will not allow alcohol-related incidents to degrade our force and impact our ability to defend Japan and provide security in the Indo-Asia-Pacific,” Aucoin said in a statement last week.
Mejia’s arrest came in the middle of a military-declared mourning period for Rina Shimabukuro, 20, who was found dead in an Okinawa forest in April. Kenneth Franklin Gadson, a civilian base worker and former Marine who also goes by the last name Shinzato, is suspected by Japanese authorities of killing her.
That incident followed the rape of an intoxicated woman who passed out in the hall of an Okinawa hotel. A U.S. sailor has pleaded guilty in that case.
The mainland divide
For most of mainland Japan, outside of cities like Yokosuka and Sasebo, crime among servicemembers and civilians covered under the status of forces agreement is a distant concept.
Japanese regret the burden placed on Okinawa but generally believe that U.S. bases there are necessary for national security, said Tetsuo Kotani, senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.
“Most people think it can’t be helped that the U.S. military is stationed in Okinawa,” Kotani said.
Polling supports Japan’s concerns, as North Korea develops its nuclear weapons and missile programs and China sails its navy ever closer to the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, which China describes as its “indisputable territory.”
In a 2015 Genron poll, only 20 percent of Japanese thought the U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region should be decreased. A Pew Research Center poll last year found that 60 percent of Japanese said China’s military and economic rise makes relations with the U.S. more important.
Outside of Okinawa, security and U.S. base issues aren’t major election issues, according to successive polls in election years. The economy and social issues tend to dominate voter concerns, just as they often do in U.S. national elections.
“Consciousness is different between Okinawa and the rest of Japan,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, senior fellow and director of foreign and security policy research at The Tokyo Foundation, a think tank.
Despite the divide, the government is wary of taking any actions on Okinawa that the rest of Japan views as heavy-handed, Watanabe said.
The federal government could legally move ahead quickly on a pact with the U.S. to move Marine Corps Air Station Futenma’s assets to a new runway at Camp Schwab, on a less-populated part of the island.
The move is associated with a larger plan which would also move thousands of Marines from Okinawa to Guam sometime during the next decade.
The military considers the runway critical to the transportation needs of Marines stationed in Okinawa, who must be ready for quick mobilization in the event of conflict or disaster relief operations. However, many Okinawans want the base moved off the island entirely and resent the national government for not moving more bases to the mainland.
Crimes committed by SOFA personnel lead to protests, including one scheduled for Sunday that organizers expect tens of thousands of people to attend.
Such protests force the national government to move slowly on the Futenma replacement, lest they create a tide of opposition that begins to impact mainland opinion.
“That is why (the government) wants to carefully take the ‘incremental approach,’ so this very situation will not occur,” Watanabe said.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made national security a major part of his agenda, even when measures that would make it easier for Japanese forces to fight abroad generated majority popular opposition.
But Abe must also avoid being viewed by the Japanese electorate as an American apologist. At a May meeting of the world leaders in Japan, Abe told reporters that he “protested sternly to President [Barack] Obama over the recent incident in Okinawa,” in reference to Shimabukuro’s death.
News stories have at times depicted Okinawa as rife with servicemember crime and utterly opposed to the U.S. military presence.
Older residents tell stories of U.S. servicemembers committing crimes with impunity during U.S. ownership of the island after World War II.
Okinawa’s bloody WWII history, when about a third of the population died, and its postwar period under U.S. control has made the island a special case within Japan. The U.S. occupation left Okinawans feeling abandoned and betrayed by the Japanese government, so emotions there are not just against the Americans but are also linked to those against Tokyo.
“This is why people’s emotions explode when U.S. military personnel commit crimes,” Kotani said.
But while crimes committed in recent times stand out, SOFA-related crime appears to be a relative rarity.
Out of 3,410 Okinawa arrests in 2014, only 27 involved SOFA personnel, according to Okinawa police figures. There also was just one charge of a heinous felony, a rape, which was later dropped by prosecutors.
“The murder this time is absolutely unacceptable, but I believe 99 percent of Americans here are good people,” said Munemitsu Ura, 63, who works in the neighborhood where Rina Shimabukuro lived.
Ura jogs with American friends and sees them regularly at his gym. He sees reports of Chinese activity near Japanese territory and frets about what might happen if the military did leave.
However, Ura rails against a common sticking point among Okinawans: the status of forces agreement.
The agreement allows Americans accused of crimes to be questioned by Japanese authorities. But if they make it back to base after committing a crime, they normally remain in U.S. custody, unless the crime is one of a handful of proscribed heinous crimes.
“When someone under the agreement commits a crime, it always gives me an impression that they know that they are protected by the agreement and that they have special privileges over us, as if Okinawa was their occupied territory,” Ura said.
Hideo Shibahiki, 70, a retired carpenter, said the Shimabukuro matter is a grave matter but should be separated from less serious incidents.
“I am getting tired of reading a local newspaper that always exaggerates any crimes or traffic accidents that are connected to the military,” Shibahiki said.
Several others expressed similar sentiments, while about 10 residents declined to talk about the issues.
Nevertheless, there are residents looking for a significant change — and crime gives political leaders an opening to pursue political statements against the military presence.
Following Gadson’s arrest, the Okinawa prefectural assembly passed a resolution calling for the withdrawal of all Marines on the island.
“Why do Marines need to be on Okinawa? Shouldn’t the mainland accept more Marines?” asked Tomohiro Yara, part-time lecturer at Okinawa International University. “Those sorts of arguments and discussions will begin.”
Stars and Stripes staffer Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report; Sumida reported from Okinawa.