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Editorial: Okinawa’s lament: a lone voice in the wilderness

  • August 21, 2021
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 1:00 p.m.
  • English Press

People in Okinawa Prefecture keep asking themselves many times they must protest over a seemingly endless series of accidents and crimes involving U.S. military personnel and the half-hearted responses from the authorities before their voices are heard. These incidents are placing additional strain on residents at a time when the southernmost prefecture is grappling with a serious new wave of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

 

Would the Japanese and U.S. governments offer such similar sloppy responses if this situation was occurring in Japan’s mainland? We urge the governments of the two countries afresh to sincerely respond to the anxiety and anger being expressed.

 

On Aug. 19, Okinawa prefectural authorities summoned top officials of the local bureaus of the foreign and defense ministries following an incident in which an Okinawa-based Marine Corps tilt-rotor MV-22B Osprey aircraft lost an external panel longer than 1 meter and a fairing while in flight late Aug.

12. They called on the officials to ensure that the Japanese government will also make strong representations to the U.S. military for a prompt suspension of operations and sweeping inspections of all its Ospreys.

 

While no human or property damage resulted from the accident, it could have been a disaster. The incident was only reported by the U.S. military to the Okinawa government the following day, Aug. 13. This is yet another indication that the U.S. military does not place much importance on communication with local authorities.

 

The Japanese government said it expressed “regret” over what happened and “shares (Okinawa’s) frustration,” but is not taking specific action.

 

In June and July alone, U.S. military helicopters were involved in at least two major incidents in the prefecture. On June 2, a U.S. military chopper made an emergency night landing in the city of Uruma and on July 13 a steel shipping container fell from a heavy-lift helicopter into the sea off Tonakijima island. The frequency of accidents has prompted some local officials to express concerns that the operations of U.S. bases may be “dysfunctional.”

 

On Aug. 13, 2004, a U.S. Marine helicopter crashed on the campus of Okinawa International University and caught fire. “Nothing has really changed,” said Okinawa Vice Governor Kiichiro Jahana. His words of lament and frustration should be taken seriously.

 

An American civilian working on a U.S. Marine Corps base in Okinawa was arrested late July by prefectural police on suspicion of attempted rape of a Japanese woman on a street in a residential area. The prefectural assembly, saying the base worker committed “a vicious crime that tramples on the dignity” of the victim, on Aug. 19 unanimously passed a resolution of protest to the U.S. government and the military.

 

The U.S. military refused to accept the prefecture’s protest, saying the suspect is part of an organization related to the U.S. Department of Defense and is not under the military’s supervision.

 

Civilian employees of the U.S. military are American citizens hired by U.S. forces in Japan or the U.S. government and, like U.S. servicemen, are protected by the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement.

 

The U.S. military’s failure to respond seriously to such a crime under the pretext the suspect is not under its jurisdiction rubs people in Okinawa the wrong way and deepens their distrust of the U.S. forces.

 

A forum for discussions among the Japanese government, the U.S. military and local administrations was set up in 2000 to help prevent crimes and accidents involving U.S. military servicemen and civilian employees. But a meeting under this framework has not been held since April 2017. This casts doubt on the commitment of not just the U.S. military but also the Japanese government to tackling the problem.

 

On June 23, Okinawa Memorial Day marking the anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga pledged to “do everything possible” to reduce the burden of hosting so many U.S. bases borne by the prefecture.

 

The prefectural assembly’s resolution also called for the establishment of a council of related officials that can make swift responses to such crimes and accidents. Suga should be true to his words and agree to the proposal immediately.

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