Troops in Japan Told to Put A Cork In It

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U.S. troops on Japanese streets, like these at this bar on Goza street in Okinawa city, are rarer since American commanders imposed a tighter curfew.

TOKYO – Don’t leave the base, don’t take a drink and for God’s sake, don’t break the law.

That’s what commanders are telling U.S. troops in Japan after a series of arrests and embarrassing incidents have heightened tensions with base communities, provided an unwelcome distraction from territorial disputes with China, and intruded on an election campaign in which a long-overdue debate on Japan’s defense establishment is finally emerging.

Alcohol has taken much of the blame for the incidents and commanders have responded by imposing an 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew for all U.S. troops in Japan. The Navy has banned drinking after 10 p.m., even at clubs and restaurants on base, and sailors involved in previous alcohol-related incidents are not allowed to leave their bases without specific permission.

U.S. and Japanese military and diplomatic leaders were scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss additional ways to reduce troop misbehavior that in recent weeks has ranged from heinous to farcical:

– Two Navy reservists were arrested in mid-October and charged with stalking and raping a Japanese woman they had met at a bar.

– A drunken airman was accused of breaking into a home and striking a 13-year-old boy (before falling out a third-story window and breaking his ribs).

– A Marine lieutenant was charged with barging into an apartment and falling asleep on a stranger’s sofa after a night of drinking, while another Marine was detained for climbing a drainpipe onto the roof of an office building (to practice “back flips,” he said).

– A sailor was arrested after wandering naked around an Internet café and urinating on the floor, while another sailor was found dead on a train station platform, surrounded by empty alcohol containers, apparently having electrocuted himself by climbing on the roof an idled train.

Japan has a crime rate well below most developed nations, and the recent incidents, no surprise, set off a wave of protests. The local assembly in Okinawa expressed “outrage” at “dysfunctional” American troops and warned that all U.S. bases could be ordered off the island.  Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto complained that U.S. commanders were “having trouble teaching discipline to their soldiers.”

The head of U.S. naval forces in Japan traveled to Okinawa to apologize in person to the vice governor, and the commander of U.S. Marine forces traveled to all 10 Marine bases on Okinawa to tell the troops to behave, or else. The U.S. ambassador expressed his personal anger at the incidents.

The bulk of U.S. forces in Japan are based in Okinawa and that’s where most of the recent incidents occurred. A particularly monstrous crime in Okinawa in 1995 – a 12-year-old girl was raped by three American servicemen on her way home from school – galvanized local opposition and led to an agreement to reduce the U.S. military presence there. The reductions have yet to take place, further fueling local resentment.

“People are disappointed and upset because the Americans say they are enforcing curfews and imposing discipline, but these incidents keep happening. It can have long-term consequences,” says Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

It’s already had consequences for the Marines. Deployment of the V-22 Osprey to Okinawa was held up for nearly a year because of local protests, and plans to relocate the aging and over-crowded Futenma air base have been delayed for a decade or more.  Opponents cited the Osprey’s spotty safety record, and environmental concerns over the Futenma replacement facility – but mostly they just want the Marines to go.

The storm comes as U.S. and Japanese leaders are watching warily China’s efforts to back up its claims in the Senkaku Islands, which it calls Diaoyu. Chinese patrol boats have sailing into or near Japanese territorial waters around the islands almost daily for more than a month and the crisis is far from resolved.

The issue could intrude on Japan’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for next month, as well. The candidate most likely to become the next prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has called for building up Japan’s self-defense forces, easing constitutional restrictions and tightening relations with U.S. forces, but controversy over crime and misbehavior by U.S. servicemen could help sway opponents.

All valid reasons to tell the troops, “Put a cork in it.”