If you’re a reader of Japanese newspapers or a viewer of Japanese TV news, you’re probably well aware of the U.S. military presence in Japan.
And the chances are, nearly everything you’ve read or heard has been negative.
For the Japanese mainstream media, U.S. military misbehavior has become regular fodder.
Sure enough, several U.S. military people have been accused of some horrendous crimes in recent years in Japan, namely rape. Yet at the same time, no crime is too petty to make it to the national media when the U.S. military is involved. It seems that whenever a U.S. soldier, sailor or Marine runs his jeep into a telephone pole or absconds with a few thousand yen from a cab driver, we’ll be reading all about it the next day.
Then there are the huge rallies in Okinawa Prefecture and elsewhere demanding that the Americans get out of Japan, events which are dutifully covered in detail by the newspapers and TV news.
The result of all this is that most Japanese have a pretty scary image of U.S. military people, who are largely seen as rapists, robbers, capricious trespassers and possibly the world’s worst drivers.
But how accurate is this image?
In the last couple of years, I’ve stumbled across a couple of small but interesting news items which seem to paint a different picture.
One is a public opinion poll conducted regularly by the Cabinet Office taken in Okinawa, where anti-U.S. military sentiment is highest. In May 2001, it showed that the percentage of people in the prefecture who “tolerate,” if not support, the presence of the U.S. bases in the tiny prefecture outnumbered those who want the bases to disappear.
The other item was a comment by Brig. Gen. James B. Smith, then commander at the Kadena Air Base, who pointed out that the crime rate among U.S. personnel in Okinawa is in fact much lower than that of local people.
Indeed, statistics by the Okinawa prefectural police show just that.
When I brought all this up with Col. Vic Warzinski, director of public affairs for U.S. Forces, Japan (USFJ), and asked him if he thought the U.S. military had a serious image problem on its hands, he was surprisingly sanguine.
“Japan has a long tradition of being a pacificist nation. There’s a certain allergy or reluctance to engage in security issues and military issues,” he said.
Yet on the subject of the Japanese press, he said, “I wish there was a countervailing view.”
The PR chief said there are plenty of good things associated with the U.S. military here — it’s just that the Japanese media are in the habit of ignoring it.
An example are the air shows and friendship days, which consistently attract well over 100,000 Japanese visitors. The most recent was in late August at the Yokota Air Base.
“But if someone had misbehaved, or if there had been a significant protest then all of the sudden it would have been all over the papers,” he said.
As for the crime statistics comparisons, that’s a non-issue.
“After all we are guests in their country and are expected to conduct ourselves in an appropriate manner,” he said.
“The Japanese view this . . . as an additive thing. They don’t look at it as rate, crimes per thousand or crimes per 100,000. It’s just one more crime on top of a long history of earlier misconduct,” Warzinski said.
Which is pretty much how Kikuyo Komesu, a reporter for Kyodo News and a native Okinawan, views the situation.
For Komesu, whose family’s roots to the island prefecture go back to ancient times, a straight comparison between respective crime rates is not helpful in understanding the burden faced by the people of Okinawa.
“Basically if we didn’t have that large military presence there, we wouldn’t have any kind of crime involving military personnel. And also, you have the memory of military control of the Okinawan people,” she says.
That memory is of the era of the U.S. occupation that lasted from 1945 to 1972, when U.S. military people were known to have committed large numbers of serious crimes and too often were able to escape the law. For many Okinawans, the crimes taking place today rekindle dark memories from that period.
Similarly, Komesu believes that the central government poll finding moderate amounts of support for the U.S. bases in prefecture to be simplistic and misleading.
The Okinawans who express support for the bases do so under the assumption that Tokyo will never properly compensate them or take other measures to adequately restore their livelihoods, she says.
“My grandparents received government money for a lease for giving their land to the military — it was not a small amount of money for them. But if the government is just going to return the land without doing any environmental work, then I think my grandparents would choose to receive that lease money rather than have the land,” Komesu says.
So the lesson in this is that statistics need context if we are to understand what’s really going on.
Conversely, context, along with a sense of fairness is also a lesson that Japanese journalists need to learn. As the U.S. military people do not commit a disproportionately high rate of crime, it is unfair to portray them in such a light.
However, the U.S. military, it may find its image improving in the coming years, largely thanks to North Korea.
That country’s antics — from abductions of Japanese nationals to boasts of a nuclear weapons program — have clearly frightened many Japanese.
Now there’s serious talk of creating a Japanese missile defense system and bolstering defenses, plans which have widespread support.
In the coming years, the U.S. military presence here may not seem like such a bad thing after all — as long as you don’t come from Okinawa.