On the Town in Okinawa
KIN TOWN, Okinawa, Japan ― The neon signs over the little bars and eating places beckon U.S. Marines like bright lights attracting moths to a flame.
From an old-time camp across the highway that runs up the eastern fringe of this island bastion of American military might, Marines hit bars with names like Howler’s Karaoke and White Kitchen and Rock America in between ``deployments,” as they’re called, from Southeast Asia to Afghanistan.
The scene is not much different from those outside American bases in South Korea. Like U.S. troops in Korea, those on Okinawan bases from the north central coast to the port of Naha in the south are told to be polite, stay out of trouble and avoid fighting among themselves, much less with civilians. In a time of deep questioning about the role of U.S. forces, the thought of a serious ``incident” ― a rape, an assault, a murder ― is a recurring nightmare.
That’s because the future of the U.S. armed forces is under the most intense scrutiny in Asia in a time of rising opposition to their presence, questions about their basic necessity and contradictory worries about defense of the region. It’s as though U.S. forces on Okinawa, including both the Marines and the Air Force, were fighting a new war for survival 67 years after defeating Japanese forces dug in here in the worst battle of the Pacific War. The battle this time is a public relations and political contest playing out against the background of rising concerns over both China and North Korea.
The Marines you meet on the streets of this town are more or less oblivious to the debate though they occasionally hear or read about it. For that matter, local shopkeepers and restaurateurs don’t seem too concerned either. Protesters and politicians may rail against the presence on this island of half the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan, but people here get along fairly well with the Marines. Some of them say the Marines these days are better behaved now than they were ten years ago – a result of regular curfews, insistence that they go out on the town in twos and threes, never alone, and community relations programs like cleaning the streets and nearby beaches.
None of these gestures, though, compensates for the sense that U.S. forces here, as in Korea, are in the midst of a transition with consequences that will reverberate down the 21st century. The Americans are under pressure to move most of the Marines on this island to bases elsewhere and to close the Marine air station in Futenma, midway between here and Naha, the capital. You just can’t get away from the fact that that base is in an urban area, that the noise of helicopters taking off and landing is a nuisance and the protest is going to reach a crescendo if and when the Marines this summer bring in the new Osprey, an aircraft that takes off like a helicopter but flies like a plane after the propellers change from vertical to horizontal.
The protest is going to be enormous, and it’s going to get worse if construction begins in this relatively unpopulated area on a new Marine air station near here to replace the one at Futenma. The story is a familiar one. People may want military security but don’t want bases occupying valuable land, messing up the environment and bringing in troops who may or may not be all that polite and friendly. Okinawans ask why most of the U.S. forces here can’t move to the main Japanese islands. The answer, as everyone knows, is no way are they wanted anywhere else either.
The cold shoulder given U.S. forces raises the question, are they needed at all? Few people, maybe no one, think war will break out in Northeast Asia any time soon. North Korea may make unpleasant noises, but who thinks it is really going to fire off a missile, much less a weapon of mass destruction, at Japan? And is China going to jeopardize its vast trading relationships with the United States, Japan and South Korea all for the sake of a tiny outcropping of disputed islands well south of here? The worst-case scenarios may happen, as they have in the past, but you would have trouble convincing people here of any crying need for concern.
Okinawans have much in common with Koreans. The last thing anyone seems to worry about on the streets of Seoul is the specter of North Koreans staging a new attack across the demilitarized zone. Nor does anyone think that China is about to attack South Korea. To most people, withdrawal of U.S. ground forces from South Korea and removal of the U.S. headquarters from Yongsan is not that big a deal.
On the streets of this town, Marines talk about exercises in exotic places like Thailand and the Philippines, war games in South Korea, long spells at sea and jungle training in the northern reaches of this island. A few barkeeps tell intruding Marines their establishments are for ``members only,” meaning no Marines, but such rebuffs are no big deal either. If no one thinks war is about to break out, no one here thinks U.S. forces will have to leave their historic bases.
The Marines have better things to worry about than criticism of the U.S. bases ― like which bars offer the best music and when their next deployment to some potential hotspot might be.
Donald Kirk has been covering U.S. forces in Asia since first reporting from Vietnam in 1965, His website is www.donaldkirk.com; email, email@example.com.