CHATAN, OKINAWA PREF. – Three years ago, Robert Eldridge gave up his associate professorship at Osaka University to work on behalf of the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa. He said he thought he could make bigger contributions to U.S.-Japan relations in the prefecture than by teaching about the U.S.-Japan alliance to students at the school.
In his new post of deputy assistant chief of staff of government and external affairs for the U.S. Marine Corps at Camp Butler, one of his missions was to achieve heightened transparency within the corps in order for the local population to gain a greater understanding of its role.
His efforts culminated with Operation Tomodachi in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11 last year, and he initiated a host family program in which children from Oshima, near tsunami-hit Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture, were invited to spend four days with U.S. Marine Corps families.
“I thought now I knew why I had to come to Okinawa in the wake of the 3/11 disasters,” said Eldridge.
Now his mission is facing a bigger challenge than ever with mounting opposition against the many U.S. bases in Okinawa. Eldridge said the goodwill and contributions by U.S. Marines to the communities are easily offset by crimes committed by a very small proportion of the military personnel or their dependents.
The deployment of the MV-22 Osprey in October to U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma provoked anger among Okinawans, many of whom were worried about its safety record. Later that month two U.S. Navy sailors were arrested for allegedly raping a woman in the city of Okinawa, an incident that evoked horrific memories of the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl by three U.S. servicemen.
Less than three weeks after a curfew was imposed after the latest rape case, a drunken U.S. airman allegedly broke into an apartment and assaulted a 13-year-old boy. Just weeks after that, a marine was said to have trespassed on private property.
This spate of crimes has many Okinawans convinced that curfews and stricter conduct rules are merely cosmetic and U.S. service members stationed in the prefecture don’t take the incidents seriously.
“There might be one or two bad apples among the many disciplined and proud marines,” said Lt. Col. William Truax, assistant chief of staff of government and external affairs for the U.S. Marines Corps at Camp Butler. “But we all know it should not be an excuse and we have no problem being held (to) higher standards.”
One reason service members are able to violate curfews is there is no system for military police to keep track of all the ranks.
Even though MPs in Okinawa started additional patrols Wednesday in parts of the city of Naha from 10 p.m. to 5:30 a.m., there are loopholes, including that a service member unable to get back to base by the curfew can check into a hotel. Thus locals have started their own patrols.
“It would be great if we could introduce such a system, but it would be very challenging,” said Lt. Col. Peter Rubin, the staff judge advocate at Camp Butler.
While marines are fully aware of the anger generated by the actions of a few, they are also concerned about biased news coverage by the local media.
Eldridge said it is a little reported fact that marines are involved in about 2,500 community service events a year, including volunteer activities at retirement homes and schools.
In June, a member of the Okinawa branch of the Japan Peace Committee reportedly demanded that a library in Tomigusuku boycott the April issue of Big Circle, a quarterly bilingual magazine distributed to U.S. service members and their families in Okinawa, because it contained a story touting the safety of the Osprey.
The library denied this request, saying its duty is to provide a variety of information to the community.
“We want both stories to be told and Okinawans to make decisions based on that,” said Capt. Caleb Eames, who extended his assignment in Okinawa by three years and hopes to retire in the prefecture with his family.
Eames also said it is hard for Okinawans to comprehend the operations marines engage in because they are being constantly reviewed and changed.
Night Osprey flights are an example. The U.S. agreed not to conduct such drills except as an operational necessity. But marines must be able to operate at night.
Once a leftwing academic critical of U.S. bases, Eldridge has good reason to believe the marines serve as an asset for Okinawa.
He spent years hearing both the Okinawan and U.S. sides of the story, and even took a sabbatical to become a scholar-in-residence at U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific at Camp Smith in Hawaii, under Lt. Gen. Wallace Gregson.
There, Eldridge became fascinated by the marines’ intellect, team spirit and discipline, something quite different from the overly bureaucratic system found in academia.
This realization led him to quit Osaka University and move to Okinawa with his Japanese wife and two children. He feels qualified to understand the complex issues facing the American, Okinawan and mainland Japanese sides.
He thought the best way forward was for both the U.S. military and any host community to have beneficial relationships, to enhance transparency about the U.S. Marines and clarify what they can give back to the community in terms of human resources, contract work and information-sharing.
“Lt. Gen. Gregson said if I am proud of something, why don’t I show it off?” said Eldridge.
As a part of his efforts, he reached out to a number of communities — including Kochi and Shizuoka prefectures, two of many places seen as vulnerable to a devastating earthquake and tsunami — and urged them to directly call in the marines for help if disaster struck, and not necessarily go through the central government.
Earlier this month, the city of Ginowan and the marines signed a pact to give local residents access to evacuation routes running through Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and Camp Foster, places normally off-limits to Japanese civilians.
But Eldridge admitted some communities reject cooperating with the U.S. Marines because they do not want to be labeled as probase.
“Disaster relief should not be affected by politics or ideology,” said Eldridge.
Eldridge also introduced to the marines what he terms Okinawa cultural training, teaching them about the local culture, language, history and antibase sentiment in order to deepen their knowledge about what affects the community.
In fact, the U.S. Marine Corps in Japan has one of the strictest codes of conduct of any branch of service. Japan is the only place in the world where serving officers have a liberty card system in which marines below the rank of staff sergeant are subject to a midnight to 5 a.m. curfew. Because of the recent crimes, the U.S. Forces Japan are even giving the liberty pass greater scrutiny.
When marines arrive in Okinawa, they are given intensive classes on local customs and also what constitutes sexual assault under Japanese law.
The top brass are reviewing conduct guidelines so they apply to all service members in Japan. Currently, the liberty card system only applies to marines and navy personnel assigned to the marines.
The three-year stint of the average service member deployed to Okinawa is meanwhile considered too short a time to gain an understanding of why there is so much animosity in the prefecture toward the U.S. military presence.
“They leave around the time they start to understand the Okinawan sentiment,” said Kaori Martinez, community relations officer at Camp Butler. “But it’s inevitable, given the expeditionary nature of the marines.”
Martinez is a native Okinawan who is married to a U.S. serviceman.
Despite such disciplinary programs, Okinawans continue to feel victimized by more and more criminal incidents involving service members.
According to Marine Corps figures, from among over 49,000 Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement personnel and their dependents in the prefecture, there were 117 criminal cases involving U.S. nationals recorded between January 2009 and November 2010. During the same period, 7,508 Japanese were arrested from among the more than 1.3 million people who live in Okinawa. But it is believed many crimes perpetrated by service members go unreported.
Okinawans also argue the SOFA makes it harder to convict suspects because Okinawa police cannot place into custody a service member suspected of a crime if that person is on duty or already arrested by MPs.
“We feel service members have not learned their lesson,” said Tsuyoshi Arakaki, a reporter for the Ryukyu Shimpo. “The U.S. forces say it’s not necessary to revise SOFA, as they give us access to the suspect, but what if (a suspect is) on drugs? It would be hard to investigate those critical elements if the U.S. has sole custody.”
Arakaki also said an increasing number of Okinawans believe the only way to stop crimes carried out by U.S. service members would be to restrict them to their bases.
However, the marine corps said this could undermine the spirit of the ranks “who came to Japan ready to sacrifice their lives for the Japanese people.”
“We have to try to spend more time to build some positive community relations, and let the Okinawans understand that we are not a burden but rather an asset for them,” said Eldridge.