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Do the positives of U.S. bases in Japan outweigh the negatives?

4 Comments
By Alfie Blincowe

Japan is host to eight American military bases, and all face trouble integrating with the locals. The most famous example of this is in Okinawa, where protests have been regularly happening since the end of World War 2. Because of local pressure and the struggle to expand on such a small island, the U.S. military have begun moving troops to their second largest base in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture. While some say this is helping reduce the negative feelings many Okinwans have, it could be creating a whole new problem somewhere else.

Iwakuni air base is the second largest base in Japan, home to 15,000 personnel and over 60 aircraft. An additional 61 jets will be moved to Iwakuni from the Atsugi base in Kanagawa Prefecture, bringing the total number of troops to about 19,000. With the U.S. plans to reduce Kadena air base in Okinawa, this could make Iwakuni the largest base in Japan.

Unfortunately there is already a rift between the two groups in Iwakuni. I have had the opportunity to see these issues first hand and found blame on both sides.

For the past year, I have lived in Iwakuni, and have had both pleasant and unpleasant experiences due to my nationality. I found it difficult to make Japanese friends until I started explaining to people I was not American. “I am so glad you are not American”, “British people are more compatible with Japanese life” — these are just a couple of the comments I have received from locals.

But I have also experienced the negative side of this. I have found it impossible to call for a taxi because some refuse to drive out to foreigners claiming they can’t get access to the base. Even after explaining in Japanese that I do not need to go to the base, they still refuse. These kinds of communication problems with local businesses, as well as regularly hearing foreign powers be condemned by protesters on the street, make for a very unwelcoming environment and has understandably affected a lot of Americans’ perceptions of the city.

Protests and resentment are nothing new in Iwakuni city, but after the decision to expand the U.S. presence there, local anti base sentiment is growing. The Asia Wide Campaign, an anti-globalist Japanese political group, recently protested the base’s expansion and had this to say: “The base is a threat to the residents of Iwakuni as well as a threat to peace in the region as a whole.”

The base does try to integrate into the local community. The local government and base authority have partnered up on a number of ventures. There are community-run Japanese classes, outreach programs and International Friendship Day, when the base is open to everyone and the pilots perform an air show. There are also local outreach programs and Japanese children are allowed to attend Mathew C Perry school. Not to mention that Iwakuni has gained government grants worth over 23 billion yen that have been slated to pay for more childcare and local development.

That being said, the base personnel are at times guilty of alienating the local residents. Many businesses say they have to struggle with customers who can’t speak Japanese, noise pollution and I have overheard more than one American loudly complaining about how they wish they had never been stationed in Japan.

While there are many people who have adjusted to the foreign culture, with many friendships and even marriages being born out of cross cultural exchanges, there will always be xenophobes in any community. The biggest problem comes from lack of sympathy for either perspective.

I think the two groups need to meet each other half way, being patient with each other’s differences. Both sides need to make efforts to respect the other’s cultural norms. This does happen to some degree, but the nature of the base means fresh-faced Americans with no knowledge of Japanese culture are constantly being rotated in. For those who permanently live in Iwakuni, it is easy to think that only the Japanese are trying to bridge the cultural gap, and that the Americans are ignorant of their culture.

These are two vastly different cultures, and with the inclusion of even more new recruits, cultural clashes are bound to happen. Thankfully, all of the protests and acrimony toward the base have never escalated into anything more than peaceful grumbling and I doubt they ever will. Unfortunately, I also doubt the people of Iwakuni will ever be entirely happy with the American presence.

Alfie Blincowe is a writer, filmmaker and English teacher who has been living in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, since September 2016. 

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4 Comments
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I think this is an unfair characterization of both sides. For one, the fact that Iwakuni voted in a pro-base mayor who allowed the aircraft transfer should tell you that opposition to the American presence here is very far from mainstream. Protests are very rare, with the last one attracting maybe 30 people. Barely newsworthy.

The racism you encountered trying to get a cab perfectly illustrates typical Japanese racism. There isn't much outright hatred or xenophobia, it's more of a deep cultural ignorance due to lack of exposure to other cultures. People come to expect what they see regularly. They expect westerners to want to go to the base, so that's how they approached you.

Overall I think your article is more fair than most I have read, but I still see it as inflating the conflict to make it seem worse than what it is.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Negatives:

Makes Japan an easy and obvious proxy target for any tinpot dictator wanting to attack America.

Steady influx of young, 'fresh-faced' people unable/unwilling to integrate, speak Japanese, follow local norms, etc.

Regular scandals when said young, etc., get drunk/rape local girls.

Occupation of huge swathes of valuable land.

Contamination of said valuable land and water with hazardous chemicals, including arsenic, lead, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), asbestos and dioxin.

Economic burden on the Japanese taxpayer.

Those damn screaming jets.

Positives:

....there are positives?

0 ( +2 / -2 )

The racism you encountered trying to get a cab perfectly illustrates typical Japanese racism. There isn't much outright hatred or xenophobia, it's more of a deep cultural ignorance due to lack of exposure to other cultures.

"Ignorance of other cultures" is not racism.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Indeed, the presence of American bases can sometimes lead to a series of social problems. In the previous period, an Okinawa elderly man to die in a traffic accident was caused by an American military drunk driver. The traffic accident has caused greater discontent among residents living in the area. And today, I saw a news report saying that a plane at a U.S. military base had dropped a little thing on the roof of a kindergarten in Okinawa. American base in Japan is rooted not only in the issue of cultural communication and communication, but also a certain security hidden danger. The relocation of the base to other cities will not solve the fundamental problem because of the strong opposition of Okinawas people, which will only create new problems. I think this will require negotiations between the Japanese government and the U.S. government.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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