The Sinking of the Ehime Maru and U.S. Bases in Okinawa


On February 9, the U.S. nuclear attack submarine, the USS Greeneville, with visiting civilians in the control room, surfaced rapidly under a Japanese fishing vessel, the Ehime Maru, sinking it, apparently with the loss of nine lives. The Japanese public was outraged, and though U.S. officials apologized, in Japan criticisms of the entire U.S.-Japanese military relationship were expressed.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen complained that Washington apologized enough. He accused the Japanese of "epic hypocrisy," because while the United States has become "the most apologetic of nations," expressing its regrets "for just about everything," the Japanese had not owned up to their war crimes before and during World War II. In any event, declared Cohen, the Ehime Maru sinking is totally unrelated to the question of U.S.-Japan military ties.

We might note that this "most apologetic of nations" has not apologized for quite everything — the fire raids of Japanese cities and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for example, that took the lives of many hundreds of thousands of civilians. Cohen is right that the conservative Japanese government has yet to come clean on its past atrocities, but those Japanese most vociferous in demanding a rethinking of the U.S.-Japanese military relationship are precisely those who have been most critical of their own government’s failure to own up to its war crimes. While the Ehire Maru may have been sunk off the coast of Hawaii, the incident was indicative of a pattern of subordinating the public interest to the interests of the U.S. military, a pattern that has victimized the Japanese people for more than fifty years. And no Japanese have been more abused than the people of the small islands of Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture.

Okinawa was annexed by Japan back in 1865. During World War II, indifference in both Tokyo and Washington to the fate of Okinawa’s people made the islands the scene of a gruesome battle in which 120,000 civilians — one quarter of the population — perished. At war’s end, the United States occupied Japan, first moving to break up Japanese war industries, but then deciding to build them up as part of its Cold War strategy against the Soviet Union. When the occupation was terminated in 1952, the United States insisted that Japan sign a security treaty with Washington, that it allow the Pentagon to retain major military bases on Japan’s main islands, and that the United States would retain sovereignty over Okinawa. For the next twenty years, the United States established a huge network of bases on Okinawa — pushing thousands off their lands in the process. These facilities played a major role in Washington’s Asia policy, especially during the Vietnam war, when B-52s from Okinawan bases ravaged much of Vietnam (north and south), Laos, and Cambodia.

In 1972, the United States returned Okinawa to Japan, but kept the bases. Though Okinawa contains less than one percent of Japan’s land area, it houses the bulk of the U.S. bases and 75% of the U.S. troops in Japan. Okinawa’s Kadena Air Base is the largest U.S. military facility outside the continental United States, and Okinawa is host to one of the largest concentrations of U.S. forces in the world.

To Washington, these bases allow the United States to dominate the Western Pacific — a goal that by no means disappeared with the end of the Cold War. Indeed, in 1995, the Defense Department committed itself to the forward deployment of 100,000 troops in Northeast Asia until at least 2015. Sometimes U.S. officials explain that these forces are needed because of such areas of tension as the border between North and South Korea. But in 1998 Secretary of Defense William Cohen declared that there would be a U.S. presence on the Korean peninsula even if Korea were unified. U.S. bases — in Okinawa and elsewhere in the region — serve the cause of domination, not defense.

To Japanese officials, having U.S. bases in Okinawa is a way to satisfy Washington without having the burden of putting up with large numbers of U.S. troops on the main islands. (In 1945 Japanese officials had secretly set up a prostitution operation to serve U.S. troops, as a way to keep the Americans from forcing themselves on "good" Japanese women. Today it seems Okinawans are expected to bear the brunt of hosting the U.S. military as a way to keep the Americans away from the main islands.) Thus, Okinawans are subject to prostitution, crimes (like the rape of a 12-year-old girl by three U.S. soldiers in 1995), land shortages, noise pollution, and all the other ills that invariably accompany U.S. military bases worldwide.

The Okinawan people have not accepted all this lying down. They have mobilized politically against both the Pentagon and their leaders in Tokyo, calling — in a prefecture-wide referendum, in Assembly votes, and in township resolutions — for the reduction or removal of U.S. military forces from Okinawa. A group of supporters in the United States — the Boston Okinawa Network — has issued a statement (printed below) that ties together the sinking of the Ehime Maru with recent developments in Okinawa. U.S. citizens in particular would do well to let their government, and especially President Bush, know that peace and justice demand the closing of U.S. bases in Okinawa and in Japan generally.

Civilians at the control of U.S. nuclear submarines are indeed dangerous. But so too are U.S. military personnel in Okinawa, in Japan, and around the world.


Statement of the Boston Okinawa Network The U.S. Military and the Japanese People

Recently the U.S. military has been responsible for several outrageous incidents that have exacted a heavy toll on the Japanese people and on Japanese-U.S. relations. The most dire of these occurred on February 9 when a U.S. nuclear attack submarine, the Greeneville, practicing a surfacing maneuver, rammed and sank a Japanese fishing trawler, the Ehime Maru off the coast of Hawaii. The Ehime Maru was a training ship for Japanese fisheries. Of the 35 people aboard it, nine are missing including three crewmen, two teachers, and four students, all now presumed dead. Reports leaking out of Hawaii indicate that the sinking of the Ehime Maru resulted from gross negligence and from the "military first" commitments of the Pentagon and many U.S. policy makers.

Naval vessels like the Greeneville are hardly the only expressions of U.S. military power in the Pacific. The 47,000 U.S. troops and more than 100 military bases and installations in Japan, concentrated in Okinawa, play central roles in U.S. dominance of the Asia-Pacific and its peoples.

On January 23, two weeks before the sinking of the Ehime Maru, Lt. Gen. Earl B. Hailston, commander of the U.S. Marine regiment based in Okinawa, sent an internal e-mail to 13 members of his command in which he called the governor of Okinawa and other Okinawan political leaders "nuts and a bunch of wimps." This arrogant and macho slur was the General’s reaction to the unanimous passage by the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly of a resolution calling for a reduction of the U.S. Marines in Okinawa. The resolution itself was the result of public outrage at the sexual molestation on January 9 of a 16 year old Okinawan girl, allegedly by a U.S. Marine.

Commander Hailston’s abusive language was a direct insult to the people of Okinawa and their leaders. Leaked to the press, it caused a political furor in Japan and considerable embarrassment in the United States. The assemblies of several Okinawan cities and towns passed resolutions calling for Commander Hailston’s dismissal. Chatan township’s resolution was also motivated by anger over a series of arson attacks on local restaurants by a U.S. Marine and the month-long delay by U.S. military authorities in turning the suspect over to Japanese police and judicial authorities. Chatan township’s resolution called for the removal of all U.S. Marines from Okinawa, and it was the first such assembly in Okinawa to raise this demand.

As concerned U.S. citizens and people living in the United States, we call upon President Bush, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, to rectify, so far as is possible, these military misdeeds that have taken Japanese lives and otherwise hurt the people of Okinawa and Japan. Those responsible, from the highest to the lowest rank, must be held accountable. With his transgression already in evidence, Lt. General Hailston must be removed from his post of command.

The U.S. Navy is conducting an investigation of the Greeneville’s fatal collision with the Ehime Maru. This investigation must answer two questions: How was it possible that this U.S. submarine, equipped with advanced technology to locate vessels in adjacent waters, hit and destroyed the Japanese fishing trawler floating just above it? How was it that the Greeneville made no attempt to rescue the passengers of the Ehime Maru as alleged by the trawler’s captain?

President Bush would do well to re-evaluate our country’s military presence in Okinawa and Japan. U.S. Marines have been committing offenses against the Okinawan people such as those cited above without cease since they first arrived fifty-six years go. Endless apologies, agreements, and promises have not ameliorated the Okinawan plight. Much as Okinawan voters did previously, in a prefecture-wide referendum, democratically elected representatives of the Okinawan people are calling for the reduction and eventual removal of all the U.S. occupying forces. This appears to be the only way to remove the frequently dangerous and long-festering sore in the U.S.-Japanese relationship. This solution seems all the more feasible since the perceived threat of Soviet expansion, the post-World War II rationale for the U.S. military presence in Japan, no longer exists and because China is not the enemy of, and poses no immediate threat to, Japan or to the United States.

For the Boston Okinawa Committee Dr. Joseph Gerson, Cathy Hoffman, Yuichi Moroi, Dr. Daniel Schirmer

For further background, see Tim Shorrock, "Okinawa and the U.S. Military in Northeast Asia," Foreign Policy in Focus, Vol. 5, No. 22, July 2000 (http://www.foreignpolicy-infocus.org
/briefs/vol5/v5n22okinawa.html); and Masamichi Sebastian Inoue, John Purves, and Mark Selden, "Okinawa Citizens, U.S. Bases and the Dugong," Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, vol. 29, no. 4, Oct.-Dec. 1997 (http://csf.colorado.edu/bcas/


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