Commentary / Japan

In Okinawa, community relations really matter

by Robert D. Eldridge.

Special To The Japan Times

While not widely reported, the recent brutal abduction, rape, and murder of a local woman in Okinawa allegedly by a U.S. civilian employee on Kadena Air Base (and former U.S. Marine) has also emotionally affected the American community in Okinawa, which cares about this prefecture and the overall U.S.-Japan-Okinawa relationship, and is deeply saddened.

The announcement of a variety of measures to address the incident and other matters is important, but without careful analysis and an accurate understanding of the situation in Okinawa, remedies by both the U.S. and Japanese governments may be superficial at best and may not get at the heart of the matter despite the best of intentions.

The U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Forces Japan, and U.S. government, like any large organization, as a whole tend to be too dysfunctional to properly handle alliance management. Disappointingly, the focus in military schools tends to be on understanding the enemy rather than addressing relations with alliance partners and friends. The failure to have true experts, with the language skills, historical knowledge, and networks in key positions also hurts us here and around the world. Furthermore, the regular rotation of personnel through billets and the “kotonakare shugi,” or the avoid-trouble-at-any-cost mentality usually associated with Japanese bureaucrats is just as prevalent in the U.S. government.

If we are going to be serious this time, certain fundamental changes in approach are necessary. The below are philosophies, principles, and strategies I pursued when I was previously in a similar position, mostly with success. However, trying to get the understanding, support, and focus of the “leadership” was often the biggest battle. It is sad it took such a tragedy to get leaders truly focused and overcome previous indifference that existed in recent years (particularly between 2013 and 2015).

First, community relations are more important than political, governmental, and administrative matters. If relations with the local communities are good, the politics will follow, but not necessarily the other way around.

Second, transparency is vital. Democracies cannot survive without transparency, which leads to a more accurate understanding and ideally support for certain policies.

Third, proactiveness is better than reactiveness. This goes both ways — not only to accept responsibility, but also to challenge mistaken perceptions and false narratives and reporting. Do not wait for a chance meeting or introduction. Make it yourself. I witnessed too many missed opportunities by U.S., Japanese and Okinawa representatives over the years to count.

Fourth, dialogue with community leaders, media, students, representatives of all types of organizations, including NGOs/NPOs, even — or especially — those that do not support the base presence on a regular basis, etc., is an important way to be both proactive and transparent.

Fifth, inclusion. As I have written over the past two decades, involving local leaders in community planning and larger policy matters, such as base returns, etc., not only gives a greater sense of ownership and commitment to recommendations agreed on, but also makes the mission of U.S. forces more transparent, thus facilitating greater support.

Sixth, along the above lines, requests and ideas from the local community through the form of a “Community Relations Idea Contest” should be restarted. One of the biggest requests by local residents previously was for on-base homestay programs, which neither the Okinawa Area Coordinator Committee nor USMC sadly understood the importance of.

Seventh, AFN broadcasts should be used to better inform the American community of Okinawan and Japanese society by hosting regular local guests and commentators to explain or introduce various topics on some shows. In addition, a segment each day should be done in Japanese for our local listeners, which include our thousands of Japanese employees on base.

Eighth, U.S. military and consular representatives should more proactively appear on local radio and television to explain our policies, programs, and events, and give public talks and lectures at universities and other venues.

Ninth, the principle of “do no harm” is vital. Not only should we make friends, but we should also not make enemies. But what is also very important is handling incidents and accidents correctly, with sympathy and understanding. This applies to not only the bigger incidents but the smaller ones as well, such as a fender-bender, robbery or other problems. Even a small issue, when improperly and impersonally handled, makes the victim feel doubly victimized, especially when they feel they have no recourse. I personally know of some examples like that which continue unresolved, embarrassingly, today. When that happens, we turn someone neutral or perhaps once friendly into someone who may come to be disappointed in us, or to despise us. Indeed, it is not only what we do after an incident but how we live and work daily in this community that will be the ultimate test.

Tenth, the U.S. and Japanese governments should immediately consider and agree upon shared use of facilities with the Self-Defense Forces, as in mainland Japan. Iwakuni — which became an important stage for U.S. President Barack Obama to demonstrate the strength and solidarity of the bilateral relationship — and other facilities are prime examples. Community relations tend to be much better there (for this, and other reasons). True base consolidations and reductions could then begin to happen in a smarter manner, for the right reasons.

Finally (actually, I have a dozen more but space prevents this), it is important to seek at every opportunity the chance to make the situation better than before, to make something good happen out of a bad. I was able to do this on a number of issues, and there are many things that can be done along these lines now to make this overall experience something that brings the U.S., Japanese and Okinawan communities together with a lasting positive legacy for the future.

Key to all of the above suggestions is that the critics and opposition forces play a constructive role and contribute to mutual understanding, education and respect. Based on past experience, sadly, this is unlikely, however, but it should not prevent the U.S. government from doing what it could have done all along.

Robert D. Eldridge is a former tenured associate professor of U.S.-Japan relations at Osaka University and the former deputy assistant chief of staff of government and external affairs for the Marine Corps in Japan from 2009-2015.