URUMA, Okinawa Pref. — At first glance, it looks like the typical English conversation school found throughout Japan — students armed with pencils and notebooks listening to a Western instructor drill them in grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation.

But the teachers here in the nondescript building at Camp Courtney are U.S. Marines, soldiers on a mission to provide free lessons to the Okinawan community.

On one evening, the students — young women, housewives and local businessmen — chat with several marines under the guidance of a Japanese instructor who hands out practice drills and keeps the class moving along.

The lessons are quite popular with both Okinawans looking to improve their English skills and the marines, who want to meet the locals.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton singled out the free lessons for praise when he spoke to U.S. Marines during the Group of Eight Summit in Okinawa in 2000.

The lessons are part of a wide range of volunteer activities that U.S. military personnel in Okinawa are encouraged to participate in to forge better relations with their communities. It is an effort to do something small and positive for the people, who generally view the bases as a nuisance.

U.S. government officials and military brass in Okinawa are resigned to dealing with what they say is a politically complex place.

The brass stress that their focus is, first and foremost, their mission, which is to provide regional security.

The countless speeches and press briefings emphasize Okinawa’s central role in this mission, even when accidents occur that raise very local and immediate concerns.

In January, an F-15 fighter from Kadena Air Base went down in the ocean during a routine training mission. Although the pilot ejected safely, incidents such as these remind some older Okinawans of when a U.S. fighter jet from Kadena crashed into a local elementary school in 1959, killing 17 people, including 11 children.

Brig. Gen. Jan-Marc Jouas, the ranking U.S. Air Force officer at Kadena at the time of the January incident, admitted the most recent crash would likely be forgiven, but not forgotten. He hopes Okinawans will think instead about why these flights are held.

“Our job is to defend Japan and provide regional stability,” he said. “The pilot who ejected was training to defend Japan.”

And not just Japan. Kadena, Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, and the White Beach training area in Uruma are all U.N.-designated rear bases.

Thus, in addition to being vital to the Japanese-U.S. security treaty, U.S. officials stress that the bases are important to Japan’s efforts to help with U.N. peacekeeping and relief operations.

“These bases have provided logistical assistance in U.N. missions, from East Timor to the Asian tsunami relief operation,” Jouas said.

However, the strong emphasis on the bases’ broad strategic importance doesn’t mean local politics are ignored.

Lt. Col. Richardo Stewart, a U.S. Marine Corps spokesman, said a careful eye is kept on the towns and villages surrounding the bases, and color codes are assigned to each Okinawan township they deal with.

“Green means the elected officials represent the silent majority view on the bases, yellow means the officials are neutral and red means they oppose the bases,” Stewart said.

Asked what color he would give Yoshikazu Shimabukuro, who was elected mayor of Nago in January, Stewart replied, “Definitely green.”

Both Jouas and Stewart declined comment on the interim report on the U.S. military realignment agreed to between Japan and the U.S. last October, or the ongoing controversy over moving the Futenma helicopter operations to Nago’s Henoko district, saying it was not their policy to speak about Japanese government discussions.

However, the marines, since at least 2000, have said they would be happy as long as the chopper operations remain somewhere in Okinawa.

Several years ago, Norio Ota, former chairman of the Okinawan Chamber of Commerce, proposed that the Futenma base be moved to the Yokatsu Peninsula in central Okinawa, right beside the U.S. Navy’s White Beach facility.

Although the marines indicated interest in it, the plan never gained support from local or central government officials.

“As far as the marines are concerned, putting a replacement facility in Henoko or Yokatsu doesn’t make that much difference from an operational point of view,” Stewart said when asked about the idea.

While the speedy return to Japan of the Futenma site is near the top of Okinawa’s wish list, U.S. officials say local leaders are often unsure what they want after that, and thus the future is hard to predict.

“When the U.S. held discussions on base issues in 2004, we had nearly 50 meetings with Okinawan government officials and asked them what they wanted,” said Thomas Reich, consul general at the U.S. Consulate General in Naha. “The top requests were a reduction in the number of marines and the return of Futenma. But after that, they were vague.”

For the marines teaching English at Camp Courtney, however, the political issues are less important than the way they use their limited free time to learn more about their community and neighbors.

Despite the antibase feelings, Americans who have experience dealing with both Okinawans and Japanese originally from the main islands say that general relations between Okinawans and Americans are probably better than those between Americans and Japanese in other parts of the country.

“Okinawans and the U.S. military basically live in separate worlds,” Reich said. “Yet discrimination against Americans is less on Okinawa than on the mainland, and relationships between Okinawans and Americans tend to be stable.”

Such attitudes give Americans in Okinawa hope that, whatever difficulties lie ahead, the arguments and protests will not descend into serious clashes.

It also gives them hope that simple public diplomacy, one English student at a time, will help Okinawans understand the American mission here.

Related stories:
Okinawa base issue not cut and dried with locals

Okinawa base opponents make a stand at Henoko

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.