Japan’s evolving democracy…aimed squarely at USFJ?

In light of this recent post on encouraging signs that the realignment of the US military presence may at last be ready to move forward to a conclusion that satisfies both countries, I found this op-ed in the Japan Times by journalist Hanai Kiroku interesting, in that it shows how the US military presence has, in some way, been an impetus to greater civic involvement by Japanese citizens, at least at the local level.

I found these paragraphs particularly interesting:

On Feb. 17, an open discussion was held in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, on problems with the U.S. military presence. The meeting was sponsored by a local citizens’ council, headed by the mayor, for promoting the reversion of U.S. military bases. Panelists included Col. David E. Hunter-Chester of the U.S. Army Japan command as well as the director of the Yokohama Defense Facilities Bureau of the Defense Ministry, a progovernment college professor, a representative of a nongovernmental organization campaigning for peace and disarmament, and the director of the local citizens’ council. It was the first time in Sagamihara, a city with a U.S. military base, that officials from the U.S. armed forces and the Defense Ministry attended such a citizens’ meeting.

Looking at the list of panelists, I had expected heated debate, but nothing like that happened. Also present was a Japanese activist who stages a weekly sit-in at the front gate of U.S. Camp Zama to protest the U.S. military presence. There was no heckling and no confusion, probably because the audience was satisfied that open discussions were being held between anti- and pro-U.S.-military groups. There was even a feeling that the two camps understood each other to some extent.

The audience apparently liked the fact that Hunter-Chester, who has lived in Japan more than 10 years including as a high school student, spoke mostly in Japanese. As the meeting closed, somebody in the audience shouted to him in Japanese, “Come to the next session in civilian clothes.” He seemed a bit perplexed. I think it was a constructive proposal.

Many Japanese feel that U.S. forces in Japan are taking advantage of their privileges under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement. The request that the officer attend the next meeting wearing civilian clothes symbolizes citizens’ hope that the U.S. military will deal with Japanese residents around U.S. military bases from a civilian standpoint. I share the same hope.

Merely by being in Japan, the US military has encouraged Japanese citizens to take an active interest in governance. While it is unfortunate that the US military is the target of civic activism — when there are so many more deserving targets ensconced in Nagata-cho — I hope that the US response to opposition from local communities throughout Japan resembles the response outlined above. The US bases in Japan are, or ought to be, members and participants in the communities that host them, and US military personnel in the community should bear the same responsibilities as their Japanese neighbors.

Accordingly, rather than deferring to Tokyo — although, of course, the central government has to play a part in coaxing or coercing local communities to agree — the US Military should at the very least try to disarm local opposition by listening to grievances and make a concerted (and visible) effort to accommodate them.

And, with luck, the spirit of civic participation forged from resisting US Forces in Japan (USFJ) will carry over into Japanese domestic policymaking, with citizens becoming active and vocal participants in the policymaking process, rather than passive observers who occasionally voice their outrage at shenanigans in the Diet.

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