The U.S. military presence has never been more welcome in Japan than it is today, weeks since the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and ensuing—and more devastating—tsunami on March 11. Many Japanese are grateful for international aid, but it is unlikely to do more than temporarily ease the tensions that escalated over the Futenma base in Okinawa last year. The grudge there is deeper and heals with no band-aid.
About 20,000 U.S. troops have mobilized for Operation Tomodachi (“friend”) in an enormous bilateral humanitarian mission. To aid the operation, the Navy has sent 19 ships, 140 aircraft, and 18,282 personnel along with barges of freshwater to cool the volatile reactor. The Air Force has meanwhile opened its bases for relief flights and sent dozens of planes to help the Japanese observe Fukushima as well as search for survivors. Although the Army is the branch with the smallest presence in Japan, it’s delivered blankets and supplies.
The Marine Corps plays one of the most notable roles in the operation, exemplified by the most widely covered and successful operations thus far: cleaning up Sendai Airport. According to Capt. Robert Gerbract as interviewed by NPR, the airport looked “like if you had left an airport alone for 1,000 years. It was like an archaeological site. It was hard to figure out where to begin.”
The assignment appears to satisfy most of the troops. “I’d much rather be carrying relief food packages than a rifle, to be honest,” Gerbract added.
Having been educated on a U.S. Marine Corps base in mainland Japan but lived off-base among Japanese civilians, I daresay that I have a unique perspective on the issue of whether this humanitarian effort will change anything in Japanese-American relations in the long run. Most of the Japanese public appreciated the U.S. military presence in Japan even before March 11. Tokyo points to lower defense costs and greater security from growing powers such as China and North Korea as notable perks. While many pacifists and WWII survivors remember only too well the devastation both the U.S. military and then Imperial Japanese government wreaked on the beloved island nation, most of the animosity has faded to a shrug of the shoulders and the occasional fuss over a traffic accident or a bar fight.
It is not, however, mainland Japan that hosts most of the tension between U.S. armed forces and Japanese civilians. Over 50,000 U.S. troops, mostly Marines, work on the island of Okinawa. Over 20% of the island is taken up by the military bases that, contrary to agreements made in the 1990s, show no sign of diminishing. In fact, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was forced to resign after making no progress in relocating some 8,500 Marines off Okinawa to Guam as was promised by 2014 by Washington; the latter has instead suggested replacing Futenma with another facility before the relocation, which the public opposed. The sentiment on most Okinawans’ minds seems to be, “Sure, you’re welcome to stay, but why on Okinawa?”
Okinawa was the last place the Marines and other U.S. forces pitched camp before the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the ensuing surrender. It may also serve as a more strategic location geopolitically when keeping an eye on Greater Asia. Most likely, however, Okinawans have historically faced a prejudice by the Japanese government, and having the U.S. presence there is simply more convenient for Tokyo than having rough-housing Marines spread about the mainland.
The Japanese across all islands are grateful for the U.S. military’s aid, but much of the warmth stoked by Operation Tomodachi will likely change few minds in Okinawa and even the on the mainland.
The question then: Should it? Had Japan won the war, the firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden would have been tried as war crimes, even if aerial warfare was not at the time covered under international humanitarian law (air power was only just developing and diplomatic efforts proved too little, too late).
Should it be any wonder that in a nation where, within living memory, 500,000 civilians died from the tactical bombings of 67 cities, the presence of foreign military personnel is undesired? I’ve heard the argument of “revenge for Pearl Harbor” countless times, but the truth is that under 3,000 Americans, most of them military, died on that day, as opposed to the (conservative estimate) of 140,000 Japanese civilians in Hiroshima. Then again, most people don’t like hearing that President Roosevelt had the power to evacuate Pearl Harbor well in advance of the attack, and that far too much money had been spent on the Manhattan Project to go untested, even if the mainland invasion hadn’t been scheduled for months later. For people who have studied beyond the conventional WWII history, the ongoing presence of Marines in Japan as well as the lack of an official apology from the Japanese government is salt in a wound that’s too deep to heal.
“I feel thankful that they are helping us, but I still have reservations about having U.S. troops in Japan,” says Yoko Hiraoka in Higashi Matsushima, near Sendai. “It doesn’t fundamentally change the way I feel.”