The Okinawa problem

At The Current, the latest addition to The Atlantic‘s blog empire (Hey, need a Japanese politics blog? Ed. — Riiiiight), James Gibney has a short post about the Tyrone Hadnott case and its consequences, which, not surprisingly, has sparked heated discussion in the comments section and prompted Marc Danziger at Winds of Change to cancel his Atlantic subscription.

Aside from a problem with indelicate phrasing — Danziger is right to complain about the phrase “…the overwhelming majority of U.S. military personnel aren’t sociopaths” — Gibney’s post more or less misses the point.

“But the impact of these kinds of episodes on the U.S. image,” he writes, “not to mention on our strategic relationships, is one more reason to weigh carefully the hypothetical benefits of a long-term U.S. military presence against their very real costs.”

The problem is simple. The USMC presence in Okinawa essentially constitutes a full American city (or town) transplanted to southern Okinawa. The scale of the US presence means that Americans, both Marines and their dependents, constitute a working community within a community in a way that smaller Navy, Air Force, and Army facilities on the mainland do not — and the heavy concentration of 18-25 males ensures a higher crime rate than might otherwise be expected. The scale of the US presence in Okinawa means that there is necessarily less need for contact on the individual level with locals on a daily basis. Arguably US Navy, Army, and Air Force bases on the mainland do not have the same problems due to the differing size and composition of those communities; they have little choice but to act as full members of the community that host them (I’ve seen this in Yokosuka, for example) and their service personnel tend to be older and better-educated.

In short, this is a structural problem that can be managed but not eliminated. Even a full lock down at US bases in Okinawa was insufficient in preventing criminal activity.

The best way to manage the problem is, therefore, to make it go away, at least in part. The US government and military have concluded this and enshrined it in an agreement with the Japanese government. The US has acknowledged the problem, recognized the burden that the Okinawan people have carried for decades, and concluded that the US forward presence must be changed — and as a result, by 2014 some 8,000 Marines and an even greater number of dependents are supposed to leave for Guam, with the vacated bases in the heavily populated southern portion of Okinawa’s main island subsequently reverting to Japanese control and remaining USMC elements relocating to the less densely populated northern part of the island.

The question, therefore, is not whether, but when and how. The US government prefers to wait while Tokyo ponies up the money for construction on Guam and secures the approval of every local government affected by realignment.

I would, however, prefer it happen faster, because every incident carries the risk of being the incident that tips the balance against the US forward presence, forcing the US to remove air and naval assets in short order and permanently scarring the alliance (if not breaking it entirely). And waiting for Tokyo could mean waiting a long time.

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