On Feb. 6, the morning edition of the Ryukyu Shimpo, one of Okinawa’s two main dailies, reported that the commander of U.S. forces in Okinawa, Lt. Gen. Earl B. Hailston of the III MEF/Marine Corps, called Okinawa prefectural officials, including Gov. Keiichi Inamine, “nuts and a bunch of wimps” in a Jan. 23 e-mail sent to 13 subordinates. The message, which caused “intense discomfort” to the governor, not only discredits the so-called Good Neighbor Policy being implemented by the U.S. Marines, but promises to have major and unintended repercussions on Okinawan policy, such as strengthening calls for the rapid reduction of the marine presence.

Although Hailston apologized, reaction in Okinawa and Tokyo was immediate. In addition to Inamine’s understandable displeasure, Defense Agency Director General Toshitsugu Saito called the statement “regrettable” and former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, State Minister for Okinawan Affairs, described it as “not very amusing.”

Hailston’s e-mail comments could not have been any more poorly timed. On Jan. 9, a 21-year-old marine corporal, Raven W. Gogol, based at Camp Hansen, was arrested on charges of forcible molestation in the town of Kin, where Camp Hansen is located.

According to often-cited prefectural statistics, since the return of administrative rights over Okinawa to Japan in 1972, more than 5,000 incidents have occurred, including violent crimes such as rape and murder. This crime, therefore, is the latest in a large number of incidents adding to the growing, justifiable anger of the Okinawans.

But there is also another tragic side to the story — Kin is the same town where the 12-year old schoolgirl was abducted and raped by three U.S. servicemen in September 1995, touching off the current “Okinawa problem.”

Residents of Kin were therefore understandably upset and outraged over this latest incident in which another minor was the victim of a sexual crime. This anger was seen in the resolution unanimously passed by the Kin town assembly on Jan. 12: “Although we have protested and called for tighter discipline and thorough measures every time there are cases involving U.S. military personnel, no improvements have been made. We cannot forgive the halfhearted steps taken by the U.S. military so far.”

Hailston’s e-mail shows a disregard for the people of Okinawa and their elected representatives and represents a pattern of undiplomatic and unprofessional comments by people in high enough positions to know better. It lends credence to the argument that it is not only the common soldiers who need educational training, but their superiors as well.

The Okinawa Prefectural Assembly in a special session on Jan. 19 voted unanimously for a resolution calling for the reduction of the marine presence in the prefecture. Significantly, this was the first time that the assembly had specifically included the word “marines.” In addition to a reduction in U.S. forces, it also called for strengthened discipline among the troops and thorough education programs. The resolution was addressed to Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Foley and the commander of U.S. forces in the prefecture, Hailston, among others.

It was in this context that Hailston, who apparently was disappointed with those “who falsely claim to be our friends” simply “standing idly by” as the prefectural assembly “passed an inflammatory and damaging resolution,” issued his e-mail message to subordinates. However, I would counter that it was not the resolution that was “inflammatory and damaging,” but rather the incident in Kin that inflamed an already delicate situation and touched off this unfortunate series of events.

Indeed, that crime, and now Hailston’s message, have increased distrust in Okinawa toward America and have done a great disservice to the positive, if belated, attempts by the marines to improve relations with the local communities, known as the Good Neighbor Policy, which was begun in the aftermath of the 1995 rape incident. It has also done a disservice to the Tripartite Liaison Committee — made up of the senior military commander, the prefectural government and a representative from the central government — which was restarted and expanded in February 1999 after a hiatus of four years. Incidents and crimes decreased dramatically — although not yet to zero — over the past few years due to increased discipline, education and orientation programs, and restrictions in driving privileges and access to alcohol.

Through such programs, relations between marines and local communities have improved. Apparently Hailston — who has been leading them (and whose e-mail ironically was written to call attention to the need for strict discipline) — was disappointed that these efforts have not been praised more in the local media and among prefectural officials. But that does not excuse his remarks.

If U.S. forces wish to continue to be located in Okinawa, they must remember they are guests, respect local feelings and work to gain the Okinawan people’s support and understanding.

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