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Staff writer

NAHA, Okinawa Pref. — Although the national media gave modest coverage of the arrest of a 19-year-old U.S. Marine suspected of molesting a 14-year-old girl last week in Okinawa, the case was front page headlines in the prefecture’s two newspapers from the beginning.

Naha Mayor Kosei Oyadomari did not attend the Independence Day celebration at the U.S. Consulate in Okinawa as originally planned, reportedly saying he was not in a festive mood.

The prefectural assembly adopted a statement calling on the U.S. and Japanese governments to prevent such incidents, with other municipalities in the prefecture also expressing their concern.

The reaction from Okinawans and their local governments to the alleged crime by the young GI seems to demonstrate their antagonism toward U.S. forces in the prefecture — just as another case did five years ago.

In September 1995, a 12-year-old girl was abducted and raped by two U.S. Marines and a Navy seaman. The following month, a reported 85,000 citizens gathered in Ginowan, central Okinawa, to protest the crime.

The incident eventually prompted the Japanese and U.S. governments to launch the Special Action Committee on Okinawa in November that year, which issued a set of proposals the following month that included the reversion of some U.S. military facilities.

Statistics suggest that violence against women by U.S. soldiers is not widespread. The annual number of rape charges filed against U.S. service members, for example, has hovered between one and three during the past decade, according to prefectural police.

These figures, however, are only the tip of the iceberg, claimed Suzuyo Takazato, a member of the Naha Municipal Assembly and a coordinator of Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence.

She added that such crimes have a different meaning from similar crimes committed by civilians.

“Crimes by U.S. service personnel are ‘federal crimes’ in a sense,” she said. “They have been sent here with special status under the government’s direction.”

“Our security has been threatened by the government in the name of security,” she said.

“It is not easy to have soldiers in a large group — 28,000 soldiers who are young, mostly single and stay on a temporary basis.”

In fact, despite repeated apologies by U.S. authorities, crimes and accidents related to their personnel continue.

In the latest case, a 21-year-old staff sergeant stationed at the U.S. Air Force’s Kadena base was arrested on suspicion of a hit-and-run Sunday, three days after the chief of U.S. forces in the prefecture directly apologized to Gov. Keiichi Inamine for the alleged molestation.

The alleged hit-and-run occurred amid a wave of protests by local citizens and local governments against the U.S. forces, prompting the military to impose a curfew and ban servicemen in Okinawa from drinking between midnight and 5 a.m.

There were 35 accidents or violations related to the U.S. forces last year, according to the prefecture, while there were 26 such cases in 1998 and 32 in 1997.

Among recent cases, the U.S. Marines conducted shooting exercises in a cane field outside of their Northern Training Area in May in Nago, while military vehicles damaged a coral reef in the village of Ginoza in April.

Fatal accidents such as the 1957 crash of a fighter plane into an elementary school that claimed 17 lives are obvious fuel for discontent, but the U.S. military presence also invisibly affects people’s lives.

Takashi Yamamoto, a teacher at Kadena Elementary School near the Kadena base in central Okinawa, said classes are interrupted by jet noise so often that children in the area are estimated to lose two years’ worth of class hours between the beginning of elementary school and the end of high school.

According to a prefectural government report, compiled by doctors who surveyed noise effects on health, noise pollution causes a higher percentage of premature babies and hearing disability to people in the area.

Noise-proof windows at schools and houses near air bases are effective, Yamamoto said. “But I don’t know how it affects the healthy mental growth of children to stay all day inside air conditioned rooms.”

However, feelings toward the U.S. military presence are not all bad, especially among children who have no knowledge of Okinawa without the bases, he said.

Yamamoto and his colleagues took a poll of all schoolchildren in Kadena after the 1995 rape case.

While most students simply blamed the entire U.S. forces for the incident, apparently reflecting the sentiment of adults and the media, some junior high school girls responded that they do not think all American soldiers are bad, he said.

“If you were an adult, you couldn’t have said that amid that atmosphere (of anger following the rape),” he said.

Whether they like it or not, most Okinawans have lived with bases all their lives.

“I think I am happy having the bases here,” said a 21-year-old coed in Nago, who was visiting the U.S. Marine Corps’ Camp Schwab on the city’s east coast during an open-base day one June weekend.

“It would be so boring here if there were no base,” said her friend, adding that crimes by U.S. service members need to be eradicated.

Dozens of Japanese mingled with U.S. military personnel sunbathing on the beach at the facility, which is usually fenced off.

Some groups of Japanese drank beer sold on the base, while others chatted with their American friends.

“I don’t have any special feelings toward Americans because they have always been around since I was young,” said Minoru Nakaoji, who came with his wife and two daughters from the other side of Nago.

Yukio Nishikawa, 64, from the Henoko district, where the base is located, said he used to work at the base as a guard.

“If the bases are gone, many people would lose their jobs and Okinawa would be in a very tough situation,” he said.

The Japanese government pays more than 60 billion yen annually to more than 30,000 landowners and local governments to lease their properties to the U.S. forces.

In addition to about 8,000 Japanese working at the bases in Okinawa, many people are linked to the U.S. forces in their everyday lives.

The Henoko district, with a current population of 1,500, used to thrive with rows of bars and restaurants during the Vietnam War years.

These days, about 20 bars still operate against the backdrop of mountains, the sea and Camp Schwab.

“We haven’t had very many American soldiers in here in recent years,” said the owner of a diner offering American-style meals — from two-egg breakfasts to steak dinners — as well as Japanese-style set menus.

Prices on the menu are in yen and in dollars.

During the Vietnam War, bars were crowded every night with marines before they went to the front, locals said.

“(Business) was pretty good 30 years ago,” said the mama-san of the hostess bar Chiaki, which employs several Filipino women. She said U.S. servicemen do not go out as often as they did before the dollar fell against the yen in the mid-1980s.

In contrast to the quiet Chiaki, the Pyramid nightclub in the city of Okinawa was packed with black American servicemen and young Japanese women in low-cut dresses.

At the disco, where almost no Japanese men were in sight, it is not rare for young Japanese women to try to meet U.S. servicemen.

For older generations, however, memories of the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, during which over 200,000 people died, and the Occupation years have not disappeared.

Local elderly people frequently gather at a hut on Henoko’s shore that serves as the base for local residents opposing the planned construction of a joint-use civilian-U.S. Marine airport in the district.

Yuji Kinjo, a 65-year-old representative of the Society for Protecting Life, which owns the hut, said more than 20,000 people have visited there from all over Japan in the past three years.

Several notebooks are filled with the signatures and addresses of visitors, including those from overseas.

The movement against the airport came soon after the Japan-U.S. Special Action Committee on Okinawa reached an agreement in November 1996. The accord included the return of the Futenma Air Station in Ginowan in return for a replacement site for the marine heliport.

Okinawa lost nearly one-fourth of its population during ground fighting near the end of World War II.

“Whichever they are, probase or antibase, all people in Okinawa are relatives of war victims,” Kinjo said.