Restrictions on servicemembers in Japan could create more issues

Robert Epstein, a Harvard-trained psychologist, author and former editor of Psychology Today, said that while servicemembers accept some liberty restrictions as part of their job, rules that appear unreasonable to them can heighten anger and a sense that they are not in control of their lives. Those feelings could spur misbehavior, Epstein said. Servicemembers in Japan are currently under a curfew and a host of other restrictions, as a result of the military's response to tensions in Okinawa that increased following the arrest of two sailors in rape charges.


By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 6, 2012

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Some or all of the following rules now apply to U.S. servicemembers in Japan: Be home by 11, don’t drink in your home past 10, don’t go to a bar without another adult, don’t leave the house after more than one drink — and your teenager is allowed to stay out later than you.

When the Oct. 16 arrest of two Texas-based sailors on rape charges on Okinawa fanned bilateral tensions on the island, military officials responded with a curfew for all U.S. military in Japan. After a handful of subsequent arrests — most would be misdemeanors in America, though one involved an assault on a 13-year-old — the rules on everyone from infantrymen to chaplains tightened further.

Restrictions on liberty are an accepted part of joining the military. But when those restrictions reach a point when they no longer make sense to those who must bear them, commanders risk creating a host of negative consequences, according to a well-known psychologist who has studied such restrictions among adults.

Infantilization, in its psychological context, occurs when competent people have restrictions placed upon them that do not align with their competence level, according to Robert Epstein, a Harvard-trained psychologist and former editor of Psychology Today.

In April, Epstein presented the findings of a study on how adults fare with the effects of infantilization, a topic studied more often among teenagers and the elderly.

The study evaluated 943 members of the general population, with an average age of 31.5.

Higher degrees of infantilization statistically correlated strongly with higher levels of anger and depression, as well as lower levels of happiness and perceived professional success.

“The worst of them all is the feeling of lost control over one’s own life,” Epstein said. “That can make people extremely irrational, extremely angry, and sometimes they lash out.”

The average adult scores an infantilization rate of less than 5 percent on an inventory test co-created by Epstein, which is available at howinfantilizedareyou.com.

By comparison, a group of active-duty Marines at Camp Pendleton scored 24 percent, while California prisoners scored 35 percent.

Higher infantilization scores on this particular test do not necessarily mean that the people taking them act like children. The test questions examine the degree of control exerted on a person and the effect of that control.

Stars and Stripes spoke with several servicemembers about the curfew’s effects. Most said they recognized the crackdown as a bid to mend bilateral relations, but they nevertheless resented the increasingly restrictive rules.

“I know we have to try to keep the peace out here,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Steven Shannon. “But it’s kind of absurd to be treated like a two-year-old. Loss of control is one way to put it.”

Some of the infantilizing restrictions on the inventory test — for example, restrictions on communications and being forced to work — make sense in a military environment, Epstein said.

Being told what to do in the military is “part of the deal,” Epstein noted, and it shouldn’t create negative effects in most personnel when they understand restrictions as necessary.

However, adults who are trusted with top-secret clearances and billion-dollar weapons platforms likely view restrictions on what they do in their living rooms after 10 p.m. as absurd, Epstein said. The inability of people to reconcile what they perceive as infantilizing measures with their maturity level is what causes problems, he said.

A better strategy from the start would have been to target high-risk individuals, said Epstein, who says he has visited Japan 19 times on lecture tours and is familiar with the nation’s cultural sensitivities. The Navy did announce on Nov. 26 that it was considering additional restrictions on sailors with alcohol-related incidents during the past three years, which Epstein sees as a step in the right direction.

“I understand the mind-set … when terrible crimes occur, one has to do something to appease [the Japanese],” Epstein said. “But you have to be careful with what you do. In trying to protect the Japanese, you can actually create so much anger among your personnel that, without meaning to, you can stimulate more incidents — even worse ones.”

When the restrictions are finally relaxed, the unleashing of bottled-up resentment also potentially could lead to ugly incidents, Epstein added.

U.S. Forces Japan officials did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment on whether the military in Japan has considered these potential effects of the current restrictions on servicemembers.

In their public statements, military leaders repeatedly have stressed that they consider most servicemembers — “99.9 percent” has become the mantra — to be good citizens, or as Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth J. Glueck said in a statement Monday, “law-abiding, honorable and respectful.”

However, those compliments often follow new or clarified restrictions on those same servicemembers. Senior officials have also described the restrictions as temporary, though they haven’t announced an end date.

In the meantime, servicemembers say they are coping in myriad ways. Some are trying to drink more before curfew to keep their buzzes going later, raising concerns about a rash of binge drinking. Others have canceled reservations for shows and events in Tokyo for fear of delayed trains, or are simply going to bed earlier than they used to.

“I don’t have any weekend plans,” Seaman Taylor Mason said. “I’m just going to drink in my room, try to stay out of trouble and hope no one screws up and makes it worse.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Trevor Andersen contributed to this report.