In 1972 the tiny island of Okinawa was officially reverted back from the United States to Japanese control as per a post-war treaty with the move supposed to guarantee the freedom and safety of the local citizens.
But while the U.S. occupation of Okinawa officially ended 44 years ago, for many on the sub-tropical island which continues to host the bulk of U.S. military forces in Japan, the ever-increasing instances of noise, pollution and, most worryingly, rising cases of serious crimes committed by U.S. service people, has ensured that their civil liberties have been impeded by a stronger occupying force strong-arming a smaller host nation’s own marginalized civilians.
Political watchers here have suggested that Okinawa and its people have reached well beyond their tipping point, as evidenced by the 65,000 people who rallied on Sunday to protest the alleged rape and murder of a 20-year old local woman by a U.S. base-linked worker, and will, through ongoing rallies and through the herculean efforts of Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga and with the backing of the entire prefectural assembly, once and for all achieve the change they deserve.
“The latest heinous crime committed by a U.S. service person has really grabbed the international spotlight, and highlighted the extent to which Okinawans routinely suffer from hosting so many U.S. bases and all the military personnel and this is a publicity nightmare for Washington once again,” noted Asian affairs commentator Kaoru Imori.
“In the past, under similar circumstances, Washington has tried to placate Okinawa and after crimes were committed, would pledge to return land used by bases to the island and promise to enforce stricter discipline, such as curfews, drinking regulations and off-base accountability. But nothing Washington has purportedly done has been effective and Okinawans feel humiliated and have had enough,” Imori said.
He went on to say that returning land after crimes committed by U.S. service people against locals gained global attention was “tantamount to treating Okinawans like third-class citizens,” as they were returning something they had effectively stolen in the first place, and said that often times there would be a clause that new land would be taken thereafter, or military facilities, like helipads be built elsewhere, which further negated an already hollow gesture.
As has for decades been the U.S. modus operandi when their service people draw undue attention to themselves for crimes committed against locals, a commander for the United States Marine Corps, true to form, said on Saturday that a 40.5-square-kilometer piece of land might be returned to Japan next year following the latest rape and murder case.
The land is part of the Camp Gonsalves, a training camp in Northern Okinawa and was supposed to be returned in 1996, but the United States decided it needed new helipads built before it returns the land and there has since been an impasse on the handover ever since.
“Every time the U.S. gets into hot water over incidents involving its military personnel in Okinawa, a high-ranking official waxes lyrical about returning land and revising the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), but the reality of the situation remains the same; the island remains a de facto mega-base for the United States so it can maintain its foothold in the Asia Pacific region, and the crimes continue to happen,” said Imori.
Other analysts have concurred and said that while the United States has for the longest time needed to do more to lessen its military footprint on the tiny island and better consider the feelings of the locals who have been unduly occupied for so many years, Japan’s central government was also to blame for kowtowing to the United States and not protecting its own citizens.
Sources with expert knowledge on the matter have suggested that in both history and contemporary Japan, the central government has consistently viewed Okinawa and its people as something akin to a different race that is subordinate to being truly “Japanese” and it is for this reason that it has turned its back on Okinawa and allowed it to be “used” in such a manner by an occupying force.
“If these crimes had been committed by U.S. service people in Tokyo, for example, the central government would almost certainly have moved rapidly to alter the SOFA pact to better ensure the safety of its citizens and no doubt would have found a way to, in tandem with a revision of the agreement, reduce the numbers of U.S. military personnel here and hence the potential risk to local citizens,” said David McLellan, a professor emeritus of postgraduate Asian Studies.
“The fact that the pact has yet to be revised and no demonstrable efforts have been made by the U.S. to address the situation reflects the central government’s apathetic stance on the issue, as for all intents and purposes, it’s not affecting ‘regular’ Japanese citizens but rather ‘islanders’ who should be used to it by now,” McLellan said, adding that an equitable redistribution of U.S. military personnel throughout bases on the mainland would be an “unthinkable” proposition for the central government.
He also pointed out the fact that during U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent visit here to attend a Group of Seven (G7) leaders’ summit, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe following the murder of the young girl by the base worker, while expressing his condemnation of the attack to the U.S. president, did not push for a revision to SOFA at that time, despite it being the most opportune moment to do so.
McLellan went on to reiterate the limitations of SOFA and suggested that wholesale revisions need to be made starting with Article 17, which guarantees the U.S. military legal jurisdiction over its personnel if they break the law here while engaged in official duties. He said that Japanese police forces and requisite authorities should be granted absolute power in criminal cases and U.S. personnel, as has been the case in the past, not allowed to exploit loopholes in SOFA to avoid being arrested and convicted under Japanese law.
“There’s a mentality among some U.S. military service people in Okinawa that they can do what they like, firstly, because they see themselves as the defenders of the people, which in itself is something of a misplaced superiority complex as Japan is not at war with any other countries, and secondly, they can act with impunity off base, as long as they can make it back to base without being arrested as the bases offer them something similar to (diplomatic) immunity, as local authorities’ access to U.S. bases to investigate crimes committed is greatly restricted,” McLellan explained.
Along with Onaga, experts believe the way to move forward on the issue needs to be multi-faceted and involve not just the revision of pacts on how to deal with U.S. service people here under local laws, but tangible measures to reduce the number of service people based here in the first place.
“An accord was inked in 1996 between both governments for the U.S. to move some of its troops outside of Okinawa and this was spurred by the rape of a Japanese elementary school student by three U.S. servicemen. What needs to happen now for the good of Okinawa, Japan and the region, is for the U.S. to wind down its occupation of Okinawa, and redistribute the bulk of its forces, by stages, outside Japan to places like Guam,” Imori said.
Defense spending under Abe has risen for five straight years and hit a record for April 2016 topping the 5 trillion yen mark (47.89 billion U.S. dollars) for the first time ever, so either Japan sticks to its pacifist ways and relies solely on the United States for security, or it depends more on itself, both scenarios of which should necessitate Okinawa being returned to its people, Imori said.
“Japan can’t have it both ways and for myriad reasons the current situation is unnecessarily causing more harm than good when the solution is abundantly obvious,” Imori concluded. Enditem
by Jon Day, Xinhua/NewsGhana.com.gh