By Shuhei Kuromi in Washington
During his recent visit to Japan, President Barack Obama also stopped over at the Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture on his way to ground zero in Hiroshima. He made a speech there emphasizing a “strong Japan-U.S. alliance.”
U.S. presidents routinely visit U.S. military bases on their overseas trips, but the Iwakuni base is jointly used by the U.S. Marines and the Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF). Many SDF officers were also invited to Obama’s speech on May 27. A senior SDF officer pointed out that he had “never heard of” any other cases where a large number of SDF officers were present during a speech by the U.S. president and that this was very unusual.
Obama stated in his speech: “I’ve made sure that the United States is leading again in the Asia Pacific, because this region is vital to our shared security and prosperity.” He continued: “And that takes security cooperation. It takes trade agreements… And it takes the proud service of our men and women in uniform throughout the region, working with our outstanding men and women in uniform who serve the armed forces of Japan.”
Going on to the Japan-U.S. relationship, Obama said: “Former adversaries have become the best of friends and the strongest of allies. The strength of our alliance is on display right here on the Iwakuni base, which is a powerful example of the trust and the cooperation and the friendship between the United States and Japan.” He cited Japan-U.S. cooperation in relief operations during the Great East Japan Earthquake and the flooding in the Philippines, hailing the Marines and the SDF for “saving countless lives.”
It is believed that Obama mentioned the significance of the Japan-U.S. alliance in light of rising anti-bases sentiments in Okinawa after the incident where a former Marine who is currently a civilian base worker was accused of disposing of a woman’s body.
Obama flew to Iwakuni on Air Force One after the closing of the G7 Ise-Shima Summit on May 27. He then traveled to Hiroshima on a helicopter.
A senior SDF officer observed that Obama’s speech in Iwakuni was “symbolic of the deepening of the Japan-U.S. alliance.” He pointed out that President Bush only spoke to the U.S. forces when he made a surprise visit to Iraq. The Iwakuni speech “became an occasion for conveying the message that the Japan-U.S. relationship has never been deeper and that Japan is the U.S.’s most important ally in Asia.” He added: “I think the SDF officers who were invited felt really proud.”