New Okinawa Hit-and-Run Strains U.S.-Japan Alliance

Torii station

On November 7th, the night before twenty thousand Okinawans gathered to protest plans to build a new Marine Corps base near Henoko, the Okinawa police learned that a 66-year old Okinawan man lay dead by the side of a road. When a police officer came across a sedan at a body shop with major windshield damage a clearer picture emerged of how the man had died. The car had been turned in for repairs by a U.S. staff sergeant stationed at nearby Torii Marine Corps Station. Soon DNA in blood and hair samples taken from the dented vehicle were found to match the dead man’s. The U.S. serviceman, who was driving home late at night, was quoted as saying he thought he had hit an overhanging branch but when he stopped to inspect the damage, didn’t see anyone on the road. According to the American pastor who came across the body while jogging, there are no big trees in that area, though he did confirm the body was partially hidden. The incident quickly rose to international prominence, and Prime Minister Hatoyama urged the U.S. to hand over the serviceman to the Okinawa policce for questioning. The staff sergeant initially agreed to voluntary questioning by Okinawa police, but has since refused to cooperate unless his questioning is video taped. He remains on base under the terms of the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which stipulates that the U.S. is not required to hand over its servicemen to local authorities until an indictment has been secured.

The incident rankled Okinawans who have lived next to U.S. military bases now for over 60 years. They have long complained that the SOFA unfairly protects U.S. service personnel from the consequences of their behavior. The list of crimes committed by American soldiers, compiled by the Okinawa Times on the eve of the previous prefecture-wide protest in 1995, makes for numbing reading. (That rally drew 85,000 Okinawans protesting the rape of a 12 year-old girl by three American servicemen and precipitated the proposed relocation of Futenma.)

According to the Okinawa Times, in the 23 years after 1972, when Okinawa reverted to Japan, 4,700 recorded crimes were committed by U.S. military personnel. They highlight the most egregious crimes ranging from American soldiers shooting civilians having mistaken them for wild animals, women and children raped and strangled to death, to civilians killed by hit-and-run accidents. The list chillingly illustrates the core issue, which Chalmers Johnson describes in NEMESIS, “All servicemen in Okinawa know that if, after committing a rape, robbery or assault, they can make it back to base, they will remain in American custody until indicted even if the Japanese execute a warrant for their capture.” Impunity creates a vacuum and has an adverse effect on civilian vicitims’ willingness to press charges against American soldiers.

As I was filming U.S. bases on Okinawa, we found an ideal location on top of a tall building opposite one base. The owner came out to greet us, saying, “You’re making a documentary film? That’s great. Remember that time in the early 1950s when a fuel tank from an American plane got dropped on a residential neighborhood and burned that family to death? My parents saw the whole thing.” He then cheerfully escorted us to the top floor of his building telling us to take all the time we needed to film the base. In that moment I realized that just under the surface of everyday life, lies a long simmering communal memory of abuses Okinawans have endured.

[Links to articles]

Hatoyama Asks U.S. to Hand Over Suspect in Okinawa Hit-and-Run

Evidence points to soldier in fatal crash

Hatoyama to U.S.: turn over suspect

Soldier decries hit-and-run probe

Historical data on crimes committed by SOFA personnel on Okinawa

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  1. By okinawans - on January 28, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    [...] and read elseware that is was sleepwear for the okinawans so I have two different stories. …New Okinawa Hit-and-Run Strains U.S.-Japan Alliance ANPOOn November 7th, the night before twenty thousand Okinawans gathered … Marine Corps base near [...]

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