While U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos and several military leaders have given their sincere apologies over the two sailors responsible for the rape of a young Japanese woman in Okinawa last week, that is not what the southern island’s residents want and it’s not going to be enough to appease them. What the people of Okinawa want, and have wanted for years now, is a change in the stationing of U.S. soldiers, and for both the Japanese government and the U.S. Military to stop brushing aside and ignoring their concerns.
Servicemen Christopher Browning and Skyler Dozierwalker were quickly caught and arrested by Japanese police only a few hours after injuring and sexually assaulting a young woman in the early morning hours of October 16th. The pair remain in Japanese custody, and as of now, have both admitted to police their involvement. U.S. officials have stated they intend to cooperate in anyway they can with the investigation, and have no intention of interfering in Japan’s prosecution. This is more than can be said of what happened in a 1995 case when three U.S. soldiers were arrested for raping a 12 year old Okinawan girl. Because they were apprehended while on a military base, the U.S. refused to give them over to Japanese authorities. The people of Okinawa were outraged at the time, even more so when the three criminals were seen as getting light prison sentences. After getting out of jail in America, one of them even raped again.
After this latest incident, the people of Okinawa are once more outraged, and demand something be done to address the military’s presence. On Friday of last week, the commander of all U.S. forces in Japan instituted immediate restrictions which included a strict curfew and “core values training.” But Okinawans aren’t concerned with curfews and their anger isn’t just about this rape incident. What they really want are for military bases to be relocated from over-crowded residential areas and the huge number of troops stationed on the island to be reduced. That is what they have wanted for years, but have been pretty much ignored by the U.S. and their own government.
The other event that is most contributing to the recent protests and civil unrest is the deployment of the U.S.’s new MV-22 Osprey aircrafts to the Futenma Air Base. Refusals to accept the crafts, both by the public and local leaders, have been going on for months, right up until their delivery earlier this month. The controversy over these hybrid planes is in concern for their safety after two crashes, one fatal, earlier this year. As the Futenma base is located within crowded residential areas, the people of Okinawa were united in their demand that the Japanese government refuse to accept them from the U.S. After months of investigations and displays involving Japanese leaders to prove the Ospreys were safe, they are finally now in operation. Still without the approval of locals, mind you.
The Osprey issue is the perfect example of Okinawa‘s argument that it is a mere afterthought to its country’s government and the U.S. Military. Out of the 47,000 troops currently stationed in Japan, roughly half are hosted by Okinawa and its bases. For years locals have been fed up with this arrangement, wanting other parts of the country to shoulder more of the burden. The local government says there have been 5,747 crimes recorded involving U.S. soldiers since Okinawa was officially returned to Japan in 1972, and argues that the criminal activity is getting worse in some of the over-populated ares. They point to instances of violent attacks against locals, like the mentioned sexual assaults, as evidence that the population of soldiers need to be reduced and relocated.
Since the 90s, the U.S. government has repeatedly made vague promises that it will make attempts to reduce the number of troops on Okinawa. The Japanese government says the same thing, that it is working on negotiations with the U.S. on the matter, but no dates or specifics are ever given. In recent years the U.S. has argued that Okinawa is the most valuable of locations in ensuring safety in the Asia-Pacific region, allowing it quick access to address any maritime threats, specifically from the growing power of China or the nuclear threats from North Korea. In April of this year, the U.S. stated that it would move as many as 9,000 soldiers off of Okinawa, but it first needed to relocate bases and facilities to hold the personnel to places like Guam and the Mariana Islands. But once again, no dates were given about when this would happen, and then the military added in June that the number of troops in Okinawa would increase before any relocations take place.
Looking at the situation, it’s easy to understand Okinawans’ anger when it seems the island is less of a part of Japan and more a U.S. territory with Japanese living on it. While I’m not foolish enough to think all, or even a large amount, of the U.S. forces stationed in Okinawa can just be moved overnight, it really is time the Japanese government start listening to the voices of its people and taking a firmer stance against the U.S. That is certainly easier said that done, with the U.S. being such an important ally and the military playing an important role in Japan’s defense, but the Japanese government could make efforts to make it easier to temporarily relocate soldiers to other parts of Japan. At least to reduce the populations in the bases near residential areas.
Some have made the point that Okinawa’s local economy will be nothing without U.S. troops there, and they may certainly have a point, but the people have made up their minds and repeatedly stated what they want. It’s not fair for the Japanese government to continue disregarding the will of its people in this situation, and the U.S. Military needs to do more than apologize and administer curfews. If the two don’t at least make real attempts to address the changes Okinawans are demanding, then they will continue to be just short of an occupied people.