Touching Base: living with the US military presence in Japan

The reaction to the recent sinking of a Japanese fishery training vessel by a U.S. nuclear submarine off Hawaii, and the captain's subsequent mea culpa trip to Japan in sackcloth and ashes showed just how sensitive is the issue of Japan's continued dependence on U.S. military might.

For years incidents of theft, sexual assault, drunken brawls, and hit-and-run accidents by American military personnel based here have kept the relationship between Japan and the U.S. military under constant strain. Even when things are quiet from a news perspective, they are never entirely quiet for local residents. Noise pollution by low- and night-flying fighter jets make living next to a U.S. air base a nightmare, prompting many to question the wisdom of this arrangement now that the Cold War is over.

To see where the battle lines have been drawn in this struggle between local interests and national security issues, Tokyo Journal took a trip to Yokota air base on the outer edge of Tokyo to talk to some of the people on both sides of the fence, and one or two sitting on top of it.

The Yokota air base is located in the Tama area, surrounded by Fussa, Tachikawa, Musashimurayama, Akishima, Hamura, and Mizuho. Five thousand U.S. military personnel and their families live inside the base, the HQ of the 5th Air Force as well as the HQ of U.S. Forces, Japan, the key stone in the Pentagon’s Asia defense policy.

With the base existing cheek-by-jowl with so many civilian communities, many good and bad things have happened across the wire. Base PR officers naturally emphasize the positive, saying that their relationships with communities are fairly good. Evidence of this includes many events where residents of the base interact with people off-base, such as the yearly cleaning of the Tama River, which is one of the biggest "community" events of the base.

"But what we're really proud of is the community relations that go on at the individual level," says Stephen Clutter, chief of Public Affairs. "There are groups of our people who work at homeless shelters and visit orphanages and nursing homes. Many of us join various festivals off-base such as carrying mikoshi-shrines on our shoulders with the local people. And local residents are encouraged to visit homes on the base."

Displaying the doublespeak and euphemism for which military spokesmen are justly famous, Clutter tries to cap his view with a pleasing slogan:
"The way I look at our public affairs posture is what I call a Base Without Fences approach."

If the U.S. military's PR is a hearts-and-minds campaign, Clutter's spiel clearly reflects the heart side. A Japanese PR officer at the base, however, prefers to appeal to facts.
"I personally think that Japanese people in general are less aware of military realities. There's no way Japan would now be able to protect itself without the U.S. military forces."

With a name that sounds like it was cobbled together in committee, The Liaison Center of Joint Actions for the Removal of the Yokota Base and Cessation of Disruption Caused by the Base is a forum that connects many groups and individuals who oppose the Yokota Base.

Masami Sugaya, the secretary-general of the group insists that the idea of Japan being unable to defend itself without the alliance is a typical misjudgment of basic military facts.
"First of all, Japan has the No. 2 military force in the world in terms of cost."
He also questions the so-called defensive purpose of the U.S. forces located in Japan. According to Sugaya, the U.S. military forces used Yokota for offensive actions overseas and for the transportation of supplies and soldiers to war zones.
"Yokota's main function is as a transit base. At the time of the Vietnam War and the Korean War bombers flew from Yokota directly to enemy territory. All the units based in Japan are designed either for transportation or long-range attacks, not for short-range attacks or defense operations crucial to the domestic safety of Japan."

Clutter is aware of such criticism, but sees it all as part of the democracy that the base is here to protect.
"Actually, we're aware of most of these groups because from time to time, we'll get a petition that they present to us. I think it's important that there is a process where they can make their opinions and views heard. We forward them all the way up to the U.S. Forces Japan level."

Clutter, however, is uncompromising about his own views on the need for the base.
"The bottom line is that the governments of Japan and the U.S. think that Yokota has a very important role to play in the defense of Japan and maintaining the peace and stability in this region, so, as long as the government of Japan and the U.S. think that we have a viable mission, we're very proud to serve here and to perform that mission."

The Japanese establishment's support for the this mission can be seen in the way it has helped to fudge the issue of noise disruption to local residents. A group of local residents, upset particularly by night-time flying, sued the Japanese and U.S. governments for causing noise pollution. However, the court regarded the U.S. government as having no responsibility on this issue. Continuing their campaign, the complainants concentrated on the national government. The government responded by requiring the group to measure the level of noise with reference to the individuals affected even though the group had already measured the noise level with reference to the areas affected.

"There are people who don't live there all the time," Sugaya explains the goverment's apparently baffling request. "Even if they are registered as residents, there are workers who sometimes have to travel and college students who live away from home and only come back during the summer time. The government told this group to measure the sound levels experienced by these people as they certainly experience less disruption. The costs of measuring also place a burden on the complainants, which is a financial threat aimed at anyone else thinking of suing the government."

It has been rumored that the government pays for maintenance of Yokota's runaway. Furthermore, it has paid for the building of schools and other facilities on the base, even though this is clearly outside its responsibility. This attitude by the Japanese government has gradually alienated local citizens to the point of taking radical, action.

But who is right, the supporters of the base or its opponents? The bottom line is military reality. Will Japan be unable to defend itself without U.S. military help or is the U.S. military presence in Japan a menace for Asian countries? Doesn't China’s great size, growth, and ambitions to be a World power make it necessary to shelter under Americas nuclear umbrella or should Japan perhaps possess its own nuclear arsenal? If so, should Japan then change the Constitution?

Removing the U.S. military bases from Japan seems to raise more problems than it solves. It is not surprising therefore that the most convenient position for certain political authorities is one of duplicity. Yuji Fujita, Director for the Coordination of U.S. Military Base Policy for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, stays firmly on the fence.

"The alliance is the basis of our activities since it exists as Japan's government policy," he affirms. "However, the U.S. military bases in Tokyo have interfered with the lives of residents in Tokyo and hindered the development of the surrounding communities. In this sense, we agree on the argument that the U.S. military forces should leave Japan."

Shintaro Ishihara, the famous right-wing Governor of Tokyo, agrees on the necessity of the alliance but insists that Japan and the U.S. should be "equal partners." Ishihara says that being equal partners would develop both nations. Fujita, outlining his boss’s position, explains the national government's negligence.
"The substance and continuation of the alliance should be evaluated and reconsidered every ten years as stated in the agreement. But this is not done. No change has been made since the alliance was signed some 50 years ago. The national government should have suggested reconsideration at certain times, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, the unification of Germany, or the current reconciliation taking place between North and South Korea."

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has put forward a plan to share Yokota for a commercial purpose. With next year's World Cup expected to attract millions of additional visitors, an additional airport would certainly bring extra profits and help the smooth running of this international event.
"Even though our goal is the removal of all the bases in Tokyo and Japan, it's difficult to accomplish this in the short term," Fujita admits. "Personally, I think that it's difficult to abolish the alliance and to close the bases. What we can do now is to reduce the disruption to the communities and to make use of the base effectively for the development of the communities."

This policy, a clear attempt to be all things to all voters, falls apart from its own contradictions. Using the base as a commercial airport would obviously increase the disruption factor for local residents, especially during a World Cup. But, then again, after being exposed to hordes of rowdy, drunken football supporters, maybe a U.S. base on your doorstep wouldn’t be so difficult to live with.

Co-written with Yumiko Watanabe
Tokyo Journal
May, 2001
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