Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Period of Reflection

News of the misdoings by Americans here on Okinawa lately has made it as far as CNN on-line (, so I'm not going to go through the sorry details here. For anyone who is interested, the BBC website has some very thorough coverage: An "alleged" rape case started this meltdown --- "alleged" in the sense that the 38-year-old Marine responsible hasn't yet been convicted, but "alleged-in-sarcastic-quotes" because no matter what the details of the incident turn out to be, he's 38 and the girl is 14. Let's be blunt: there just aren't any benign interpretations for a 38-year-old man having a 14-year-old girl alone in his company unless he's her parent, much less driving her around in his car for several hours in the middle of the night.

This incident alone was more than enough to strain U.S.-Okinawan relations, which were already stretched pretty thin by the continued wrangling over the relocation of the Futenma landing field (which, in a horrible irony, was initiated as a result of the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by three American servicemen). But then, despite mandatory briefings about not causing any more incidents, two more Marines in two separate incidents got drunk and then stupid (although I suppose they must have been stupid even before they got drunk). One Marine got arrested for DWI, a hugely big deal on Okinawa, where the laws have recently been tightened and police are vigorously enforcing them in an effort to reform Okinawa's reputation as Japan's drunk driving capital. A second candidate for Idiot of the Year went out the same weekend, got blind drunk, walked into a local house, and passed out on the sofa. It's a little funny until you imagine waking up to find a gigantic drunk American has broken into your living room. Then there are the Marines arrested for trying to pass counterfeit bills, and the Army sergeant accused of rape.

So we're grounded. All of us: Marine and Air Force and Army and Navy, all of the civilians who work directly for the Department of Defense, and all of their spouses and children. All 45,000 of us.

Traffic patterns are different, since the Americans have to stay home (or on base) --- you can tell who we are because all of the license plates issued to anyone connected to the American military start with "Y." The parking lots at the 100 Yen store and at the Indian imports store and the drive-throughs at McDonald's and Starbucks are mostly empty. All of the little restaurants along the highway that passes the major bases must be hurting, not to mention the bars and tattoo parlors and nail salons. I hear that last Saturday, the wait for a table at the only civilian restaurant on base was an hour and a half. I can't even get a phone call through to the base beauty salon, and until last week you could practically get a walk-in pedicure. People waiting in line for lattes at the on-base Starbucks concession are starting to get snappy.

Strangely, instead of easing tensions between Americans and Okinawans, I have the feeling that things are getting worse. There are rumors that locals have started calling the police if they see Americans in public (maybe true, maybe not --- it's hard to credit that the Okinawan police would actually have the authority to enforce American military regulations). There are rumors that base MPs in civilian "plain clothes" are patrolling popular local spots like the 100 Yen store and the San-A grocery store, looking for errant Americans (probably true). There are rumors that some services (nobody said it was the Air Force, but everybody's thinking it) were so lax in their interpretation of the restrictions that within a few days they were back in the drive-through lanes of McDonald's and Starbucks on the theory that they weren't actually in any local establishments. (I think this one is true --- you'd have to see what passes for Air Force uniforms to appreciate the difference in attitude.) There are rumors that "someone high up" (variously identified as a colonel or a master sergeant) decided that the restrictions didn't apply to him, was caught doing business off-base, and processed through a disciplinary action and thrown off the island in record time (probably apocryphal, and maybe even planted).

What I notice is that, despite 2 1/2 years of being attentive to Japanese culture and making a conscious effort to be respectful of it, of taking dance and music classes for two years with Japanese teachers and students, and of experiencing nothing but politeness in return for my efforts to be a "good" (as opposed to "ugly") American, after a week of being lumped in with the worst of all possible Americans in the public eye, the public is eyeing me askance. Suddenly, I'm not myself: I'm "one of those Americans." And I feel guilty. I feel like apologizing to every Japanese person who will meet my eyes (which, right now, is pretty much restricted to the gate guards and the people working at the various base concessions). And I feel people looking at me as I wait for the children at the bus stop, as I drive from my apartment to the base library --- looking at me and wondering what I'm doing out, and wishing me hastily back into whatever hole I crawled out of. I know it's not "me" --- but it is "us."

Once again, I am deeply ashamed to be an American.