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COLUMN ONE : U.S. Forces in Japan on Defensive : Dollar's decline and easing of Cold War threat strain ties between sailors and port town's residents. Such tensions, and alleged rape of Okinawa girl, make many ask if America's military should go home.

October 18, 1995|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

YOKOSUKA, Japan — U.S. Navy engineer Oswald Green flinches, then shares his secret about how he manages to play in one of the world's most expensive countries on a salary of $1,200 a month: He lets his Japanese dates pay for everything.

Green, 25, has let women wine and dine him with grilled beef and Chinese feasts; they shower him with presents, even a leather jacket. He knows guys who have been given cars or had apartments rented for them--but it doesn't exactly make a proud U.S. military man feel tall.

"You feel like crap," Green said, wearing a Chicago Bulls T-shirt in the chill night wind outside the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka near Tokyo. "But," he added philosophically, "you could be proud and broke, or you could say: 'Hey, she has the money. Let her pay.' "

If anything illustrates the shift in the relationship between the U.S. military and its Japanese hosts over the past 50 years, it may be this hot spot where young women with henna-dyed hair and fat wallets hang out to meet the eligible paupers of the U.S. Navy. Here, 22,000 Americans support the 11 forward-deployed ships of the U.S. 7th Fleet docked at Yokosuka--a port town of 430,000 known for its sailors, fishing fleets and shipbuilders--and a host of bars and shops with names like Tennessee and Buffalo that have sprung up to serve them.

But over the two decades during which the dollar has lost three-fourths of its value against the yen, soldiers and sailors--who once bought silk kimonos as souvenirs, drank with abandon and paid for their dates--have drastically reduced their sprees. Base jobs once paid Japanese workers three times the local salary; now they've lost their luster as Japan's economic rise has lifted the pay of even female office clerks above that of the average U.S. enlisted man.

The economic shift has markedly changed perceptions. Many shopkeepers who once put up with the sailors' boozing and brawls for their businesses' sake say they wish the Americans would just go home.

Japanese taxpayers, who are assuming an ever greater share of base expenses, have begun to view the once-omnipotent military forces as mere contract employees, said Yoshimi Ishikawa, a social commentator.

Although security agreements require the United States to pay for all Japanese employed on base, Japan began picking up the costs in what it calls a "sympathy budget" under a special provision negotiated in 1989. Japan's 74% share of Japanese employees' costs is scheduled to rise to 100% next year under the 1960 security treaty, which obliges the United States to come to Japan's defense in the event of an armed attack and allows it the use of Japanese land and facilities.

Overall, the Japanese offer the most generous support of all U.S. allies: about $3.3 billion annually for costs such as labor, utilities, facilities improvement and land rental and $715 million more for such special items as tax exemptions.

Smoldering Resentment Erupts

But such financial aid, along with Japan's growing confidence in itself, has gradually increased frustration among the Japanese over their role as a lesser partner to the United States in security decisions, Ishikawa and others say.

Such "smoldering feelings" of resentment erupted after a 12-year-old girl was allegedly beaten and raped last month on the southern island of Okinawa by three U.S. servicemen, said Koichi Kato, the leader of the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party. When the U.S. military declined to hand the suspects to Japanese police until indictment, citing security agreements, critics said Japan was still being treated as a conquered nation.

As the economic benefits of the bases diminish and their military necessity comes into question in the post-Cold War world, and as Japanese taxpayers increase support for bases that seem to be mainly nuisances in return, more people have begun to wonder: What, exactly, are the Americans doing here anyway?

"Government officials understand the U.S. presence is important with growing instability in the international situation, even after the end of the Cold War," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said. "But to the average person, the benefits seem small. They wonder why they have to pay so much in taxes, why they have to put up with crime. There's a mood being built not to put up with this."

That mood is reflected in the intensive media coverage of U.S.-Japan security arrangements in the aftermath of the Okinawa incident. For three decades, the issue has been largely untouchable and unquestioned. Even today, many Japanese feel the U.S.-Japan alliance was foisted on them without an adequate chance to fully explore security options, said Seiki Nishihiro, a former Defense Agency deputy minister.

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