Originally published at Digital Journal
The alleged rape of an Okinawan woman by two American sailors is but the latest in a string of literally thousands of crimes committed by US troops on the small Japanese islands over the past seven decades.
Okinawans have been trying in vain to get the Americans to leave their little corner of Japan for generations. In 1945 a farmer armed only with a bamboo pole was shot dead as he attempted to protect his land from US forces. Okinawan property was seized at gunpoint; homes and farms were bulldozed or burned. The Americans promised Okinawans good farmland and financial assistance if they would only move halfway around the world to Bolivia. Thousands took them up on their offer only to find themselves shipped off to an inhospitable wilderness where many died from disease. They never saw a penny of the promised money.
Back in Okinawa, the US military proceeded to build over 100 military bases on a series of islands roughly the size of Los Angeles. Washington forced the Japanese government to accept status of forces agreements (SOFAs) that gave the US jurisdiction over all American personnel on Japanese soil. Whenever an American serviceperson commits a crime in Japan, he or she was typically dealt with not by the Japanese legal system but rather by US authorities who usually transferred the offender out of Japan.
The results have been shocking. In one six-month period in 1949, US troops killed 29 Okinawans and raped 18 more. Americans raped local women and girls at gunpoint, sometimes dragging them away in front of their families. Many unwanted pregnancies resulted. Some rape victims were too young to conceive; a nine-month-old baby was assaulted in 1949 and a six-year-old named Yumiko was raped and murdered, her little body tossed onto a trash heap, in 1955.
Since the United States handed control of Okinawa back to Japan in 1972 there have been 25 murders, 127 rapes, 306 assaults, 25 arsons, 385 burglaries and 2,827 thefts by US troops. There have been more than 170 courts-martial for sexual assault, but the Pentagon prefers to keep these cases as hushed as it possibly can. It doesn’t always succeed; in 1995, 40 years to the day after little Yumiko’s murder by a US Marine, two Marines and a sailor kidnapped a 12-year-old girl before brutally beating her, binding her with duct tape and gang raping her. They made no effort to cover their tracks.
This heinous crime led to a change in the SOFA that allowed Japanese authorities to convict and imprison Americans who rape and murder. But the rapes did not stop. In 2001 an Air Force staff sergeant raped a 20-year-old woman on the hood of a car outside a popular nightclub. Two years later, a Marine viciously attacked a 19-year-old, breaking her nose before raping her on a road. In 2005 an Air Force staff sergeant sexually assaulted a 10-year-old girl on her way to Sunday school. He pleaded his innocence; nude photos of the little girl on his cellphone told a different story. In 2008 a Marine raped a 14-year-old girl in his car on a street near his base.
Nearly half of all female students at one Okinawa high school reported having “scary experiences” with US troops on their way to and from school. There have been massive protests by locals against crimes committed by Americans, but they still occur. At times, US military leaders have been incredibly crass about the crimes their troops commit. When a Marine was arrested in 2001 for lifting a young girl’s skirt so he could take a photo, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Earl Hailston, then commander of all US forces on Okinawa, called local officials “nuts and a bunch of wimps” for their response to the incident.
In addition to raping Okinawan girls and women, US forces stationed there have ravished the islands’ environment as well. Soil, water and coral reefs have been devastated by toxic chemicals like mercury, PCBs and aviation fuel. Radioactive depleted uranium shells were fired, releasing carcinogenic particles into the air.
The sad part of all this is that the presence of so many US troops on Okinawa is absolutely unnecessary. Japan does not need so much defending. First of all, no foreign power has attempted to invade Japan proper since Kublai Khan and a Mongol armada failed spectacularly more than 700 years ago. North Korea poses no serious threat to Japan, nor does China, which the Japanese increasingly view as an economic partner despite the two countries’ tumultuous history. Even after the revelation of North Korea’s nascent atomic arsenal made front-page headlines in Japan, Japanese identified the United States as the “biggest threat to world peace” in an international poll. Besides, Japan, which boasts one of the best and most advanced militaries in the world, is perfectly capable of defending the country.
No wonder Okinawans have been taking to the streets in massive demonstrations against the US military presence. In 2010, some 90,000 outraged locals rallied against the relocation of a US air base. In September 2012, 100,000 people protested the planned deployment of additional US warplanes. This, in a place with a total population of just 1.3 million.
Opposition to the US military presence can literally make or break Japanese politicians’ careers. In January 2010, Okinawans elected Susumu Inamine, who made getting rid of US troops the centerpiece of his campaign, as mayor. And former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was elected, in part, because he pledged to move a US Marine base off the islands. He later broke his promise under intense pressure from the Obama administration, and it cost him his job.
Many Okinawans appreciate the economic and security benefits of having US bases in their backyards. But the crime and pollution that comes along with those benefits has many locals wishing there were less– or even no– Americans stationed on their islands. While they debate and protest, the rape of Okinawa continues.