A US Air Force F-22 Raptor jet takes off at Kadena USAF Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa on June 15, 2009.  Reuters / Yuriko Nakao
A US Air Force F-22 Raptor jet takes off at Kadena USAF Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa on June 15, 2009. Photo: Reuters / Yuriko Nakao

A couple weeks ago on Okinawa, a US Marine driving a military vehicle while reportedly under the influence of alcohol collided with a truck and killed the Okinawan driver.

These incidents are tragic and infuriating, though probably impossible to eliminate.

Such events on Okinawa follow a predictable cycle of ‘incident, outrage, apology, calls to remove the bases, followed by simmering resentment’ – until the next one happens and the cycle repeats itself.

There are other large US bases in Japan, and incidents involving American service members and local civilians happen – just as they do on Okinawa. Yet, these attract far less attention.

Yokosuka near Tokyo where there’s a large US Navy base has had its share of violent incidents over the years. In one heartbreaking case in 2006 a sailor murdered a middle-aged Japanese woman on the street early one morning.

This provoked shock and outrage, but did not lead to calls for removing the US Navy nor lasting resentment towards the US military.

What’s the difference between Yokosuka and Okinawa?

It’s not entirely Okinawa’s unique history and different culture from mainland Japan. Nor are Marines more dangerous than other services.

Rather, a military presence anywhere – even a Japan Self Defense Force base – needs a ‘cushion’ between the military and civilian community – so unfortunate incidents can be absorbed, mourned, and recovered from.

In Yokosuka there’s a cushion. On Okinawa there isn’t.

The US Navy’s approach has differed from the US Marine approach on Okinawa. Put simply, it’s been more thoughtful and focused on patiently building mutual understanding between the US Navy and local civilians.

And the better the military and the civilians understand each other, the fewer the problems and the thicker the ‘cushion.’

The Marines, on the other hand, for decades operated with an ‘occupier’ mind-set. In recent times this has shifted, but to a largely reactive approach, characterized as staying mute and hoping nothing happens that draws attention and then apologizing when it does.

Rather than speaking up for themselves, the Marines have expected the Japanese government to defend their presence.

Yet, the central government has mostly used the Marines as a lightning rod to absorb Okinawan resentment of Tokyo, while hoping huge ‘special payments’ might placate Okinawan opposition.

The Marine Corps leaving things up to the US Embassy hasn’t worked any better.

Ironically, many Okinawans support or at least tolerate the bases, though a vocal opposition and a hyper-partisan local media (and a too-often lazy foreign press) gives a distorted impression.

If the Marines are serious about building a ‘cushion’ they need a systematic, long-term effort to build support for and understanding – both on Okinawa and mainland Japan – of the US military presence on Okinawa.

In fact, the Marines actually tried such an approach from 2009-2015 when Dr. Robert Eldridge was heading up the effort. Fluent in Japanese and the world’s leading expert on Okinawa and the Ryukyus, he was originally anti-base (if not anti-military).

Yet, he gave up a tenured professorship at Osaka University and went to work for the Marines Okinawa handling government and external relations.

Dr. Eldridge came to be the face of the Marine Corps and US forces for local mayors, business leaders, citizens groups, reporters and politicians – both supporters and opponents of the US presence.

And he was a fixture in local and mainland media and a regular on op-ed pages explaining and advocating for the US military presence. He visited universities and think-tanks, and placed young Okinawan and mainland Japanese students as interns with the Marines, while placing Marine Officers as interns with a prominent Diet member.

Along with local Okinawan supporters, he took on violent, vulgar protestors outside Futenma Air Station. And he set up a home-stay program with the Marines for children from the Tohoku disaster area that created a couple of generations of pro-American, pro-Marine Japanese.

Most of all, his efforts allowed Okinawan support for the Marine presence to coalesce. And he made the inevitable incidents into something positive rather than the usual recriminations and embarrassed apologies.

For the first time since 1946 the Marines had a ‘cushion’ on Okinawa.

In 2012, Dr. Eldridge received the Nakasone Yasuhiro award for his efforts strengthening the Japan-US alliance.

Not surprisingly, the anti-base crowd in Japan did not like him. Nor did US ‘alliance managers’ and parts of the Japanese defense establishment. Such is the price of doing one’s job well.

He also upset rice bowls – and even some future paydays – by pointing out the problems with the Futenma airbase replacement plan and offering a better solution.

Unfortunately, in a panicked display of spinelessness, the Marines fired Dr. Eldridge in 2015 for challenging opposition claims that military guards dragged a protestor onto base to arrest him. Challenging lies is something Marines are supposed to do and he wasn’t even a Marine.

Having reported a senior Marine officer on Okinawa for driving after drinking didn’t help either. The USMC might have sealed its fate on Okinawa the day they let Dr. Eldridge go.

The ‘cushion’ is gone. As one pro-base Okinawan sadly noted: “the distance has never been greater between the bases and the Okinawan side”

So it will be ‘incident, anger, apology, simmering resentment’ – until there’s one incident too many and the alliance managers look to save the larger defense relationship by disposing of the Marines.

The Marines ought to send up a red-star cluster – emergency flare – and ask Dr. Eldridge to come back.

Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo with more than 20 years' experience in Japan and elsewhere in Asia as a US diplomat, business executive, and US Marine Corps officer.

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