A Culture Clash?
Image Credit: U.S. Department of Defense (Flickr)

A Culture Clash?


(The following is a guest editor's entry by Dr. John W. Traphagan, University of Texas at Austin)

In 1995 and 1996, I was living in Japan conducting fieldwork as a Fulbright Scholar for my doctoral dissertation.  I still vividly remember visiting Tokyo for a meeting with other Fulbright scholars in Japan and taking a walk to enjoy some fresh air.  As I strolled along, a busload of American Navy personnel drove past, shouting and hanging out of the windows.  As the bus drew closer, I realized that the shouts were largely racial epithets, in English, some of which were directed at me.  The next day, I found a phone number for the United States Navy in Japan and called to speak with someone, who turned out to be a Navy officer who agreed that the behavior was less than becoming of American servicemen.   More than being angry about the specific slurs, I was embarrassed that fellow representatives of the U.S. (Fulbright Scholars are often told that they represent the U.S. in the host country) showed such rude and unruly behavior. 

A few months later while I was still in Japan, I was again confronted with the atrocious actions of some of my fellow countrymen when news broke that a group of U.S. Marines had raped a 12 year-old school girl in Okinawa. And, in fact, recent ongoing problems with the behavior of American military personnel on Okinawa have again made news with the arrest of two American sailors who have been accused of raping a 20 year-old Japanese woman

The response to this among Okinawans has been what might be expected.  Residents and authorities on Okinawa have noted that nearly 6,000 crimes have been committed by U.S. military personnel since Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972, and the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly passed a resolution stating that, "preventive measures and instructions to servicemen have become dysfunctional."  In response to the obvious, and ongoing, anger of Okinawans (and other Japanese) to many aspects of the U.S. military presence, U.S. Ambassador John Roos noted that he understands " the anger that many people feel with respect to the reported incident. I would not be honest with you if I did not tell you that I did not share some of the anger."

More than sharing the anger of Okinawans and other Japanese, the U.S. government needs to develop an effective means to train military personnel to respect the people and culture of Okinawa (or any other place in the world where they are sent).  Bringing in anthropologists and others with deep knowledge of Japanese culture and society to work with and teach U.S.military personnel would be an excellent place to start with this, and perhaps this is already done to some extent. The U.S. military does engage in cultural training.  The problem here, however, is deeper than a simple lack of understanding of Japanese culture—it is a matter of basic decency toward people who live in other societies.  The military needs to develop techniques to reduce the arrogance that many Americans bring to their understanding of and attitude towards other parts of the world.  Rather than worrying so much about being “proud to be an American” or being proud to be a Marine, Sailor, Soldier, or Airman the rhetoric of training in the U.S. military should emphasize service to the countries in which they are invited as guests and to the people with whom they work as allies.  The problems that plague the U.S. military in Okinawa are related to a basic lack of respect for people from other societies, which in turn is part of a broader lack of awareness and respect among many Americans for people who live in other parts of the world. 

While clearly more work must be done within the U.S. military to educate some military personnel, the general problem of thinking about foreign cultures and peoples also needs to be addressed among the American public.  American politicians, in particular should stop expounding about American exceptionalism and the greatness of America and devote more time working to understand, cooperate with, and respect the people who live in other countries and with whom they are intertwined in an era of global economic and political interactions and transactions.  The rhetoric of American superiority often spouted by some politicians in the U.S. could lead to the kind of attitudes that some American service personnel bring to the countries to which they are stationed and can lead to a lack of respect for the people and cultures in which they reside. This, in turn, can generate the kinds of abhorrent behavior to which Okinawans have been subjected for decades by some members of the American military. 

American politicians should provide real international leadership not by proclaiming the superiority of American values and ideals, but by showing respect for and understanding toward those who live in other parts of the world.

I call BS
December 15, 2012 at 11:44

I enlisted in the Navy out of High School and served aboard a ship forward deployed to Japan in the mid 80s.  I'm with Major Conrecode that the story regarding the sailors on the bus is likely made up.  My experience in Japan and with the Japanese was one of mutual respect and appreciation and that began with my military training.  I detached from the service and returned to the United States where my undergraduate field of concentration was in East Asian studies with a focus on Japanese history.  I minored in the language and returned to Japan to work in the civilian sector.  I maintain many friendships there and have a sincere affinity toward the people and the culture.  That is precisely because of my military experience.  While not every enlisted person developed the same degree of affection for the culture, neither did my fellow enlisted personnel exhibit any of the behavior Dr. Traphagan describes.  I would say that it would not have been tolerated, but that would lend credence the idea that it may have happened.  Our service personnel simply do not behave that way.  Sure, individuals can be crass, rude and disrespectful, but I have found that to be more true among elitist, arrogant and condescending graduate students and university professors than to be the case with our military personnel serving abroad.  And I have spent a great deal of time with both.  But for a group to act this way?  While in uniform?  I don't think so.  What this story does affirm though, is the lack of knowledge about and appreciation for our military by the so-called intellectual elite.  To paraphrase an author whose work I just read, I would suggest that more work must clearly be done within the upper levels of our colleges and universities to educate some graduate students and professors.  The general problem of thinking about our military and those who choose to serve our nation also needs to be addressed among those who profess to be among the educated elite. American Universities in particular should stop teaching the false idea that the concept of American exceptionalism and the greatness of America is somehow a bad thing and that it is those very ideas and concepts that serve as a shining light of freedom and liberty to the rest of the free world.  Universities should devote more time working to understand, and respect the people who choose to serve our Nation and to live in other countries and without whom they would not enjoy the liberty and freedom that service affords.  They should at a minimum not lie about the actions of our service members serving abroad to advance a personal agenda. The rhetoric of educated apologists for American culture occasionally if not often spouted by some PhDs from the University of Texas in Austin shows a profound lack of understanding and respect for their own people and culture. This, in turn, can generate the kinds of abhorrent behavior to which Americans on the whole, and especially those who pay exhorbitant tuition rates for the indoctrination of their children, have been subjected for decades by some members of the American intellectual class.  Cheers!!

December 5, 2012 at 00:26

Exactly, US treats Japan like a xxxx (fill in the appropriate with your imagination ), so Japan must be 100% submissive and do what US wants.

December 4, 2012 at 23:04

I implore the Marines to leave Okinawa right away and go to Australia where there is still plenty of open spaces. Don't wait until Australia has been overrun by immigrants and there is no more empty space available for you.

Dr No
December 4, 2012 at 15:23

Out of interest I'd like to know how many of these 6,000 crimes were committed by white Americans.

December 4, 2012 at 14:02

It’s a shame that scholars only highlight the negative aspects of U.S. military personnel in Japan. I was stationed in northern Japan for two years and had the utmost respect for Japanese people. A lot of my fellow service members also shared this respect and took the time to learn Japanese and more about Japan in general, many even married Japanese citizens. The U.S. military was also quick to provide disaster relief once the Tsunami and Fukashima reactor problem occurred. Although more could, and should, be done to educate service members about Japanese society, there will always be some amount of crime when you have a population of 50,000+ people living abroad. As for “US exceptionalism,” I’ve lived in Asia for over 6 years and have seen a similar attitude from some Asian individuals, as well as Europeans living and working in Asia.

December 4, 2012 at 11:47

I was a USN Advisor to the Vietnamese Navy during the War and in addition served two years at NAF Atsugi, Japan as Permanent Shore Patrol(Military Police).
News Flash! Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen, Marines , Civilians, Americans, Japanese, Vietnamese etc. have the major flaw of being human. That means that some of them are real jerks and a few are monsters. Most are decent people. Note people in Korea, China, Viet Nam etc. believe that the Japanese Soldiers behaved very badly during WWII and still bear grudges, while Americans tend to be well treated in Japan, Korea and Viet Nam even after the Wars.
Through out history this sort of thing has happened. Compaired to the Roman Empire or China during the Waring Kingdoms, it was much worse.(I expect that the Chinese robo posters will get very upset that I imply that they are human like the rest of us. Every Chineser robo poster is absolutely convinced that every Chinese person that has ever existed is absolutely perfect). 
Still this a serious problem. As Americans, we need to be better guests in the countries that we visit, live in or are assigned to. The saving grace for us Americans is that the Chinese seem to hate every non Chinese person. Read what the Chinese robo posters write here about Japanese, Indians, Vietnamese, Philipinas, Russians and everyone else.
Unfortunately, we all have human fralities.

December 4, 2012 at 02:07

Kick out? LOL
How can colonies kick out their owner?
South Korea and Japan will do what US say.

December 3, 2012 at 18:29

I am neither a U.S. citizen nor an anthropologist, so please take this remark with a pinch of salt. However, even though the united states is indeed a multicultural society, it is my impression that the general conception of "standard" or mainstream cuture in the states is very similar to white, middle/upper class culture. That is, for all the hispanic, eastern european, asian or african culturural expressions that do exist in the U.S., I'm sorry to say that they do not seem to be on equal terms with so called "western anglo-saxon culture". In addition, for all the "cultural melting pot" (or cultural mosaic, like some prefer) that the U.S. is, with U.S. nationalism seemingly based on uniting in a common identity as "american", it would not seem suprising if this supra-cultural identity is naturalized as universally preferable to other national cultures (rather than relatively preferable, based on the context of geographipcally actually being in the states).

This however, as stated above, is equal to "coffee brake anthropology". With respect to american citizens, I admittedly do not know what I am talking about.

Emmett Conrecode
December 3, 2012 at 07:50

I don't believe your bus story.  The real story is you were a Fulbright Scholar working on your doctoral dissertation.  I believe you need a story so you made one up.
I am a retired Marine Major.  When I was in Okinawa sat on a discharge board to determine if a Marine deserved a Dishonorable Discharge do to a crime he was convicted of by the Japanese Courts. 
The facts are as follows.  A young Hispanic Marine was out in town in a bar.  Someone got him drinking an extremely hard drink called SoJu.  Once the Marine was intoxicated a middle age Japanese Prostitute led the young man into a stall in the men’s room.  Once there his elevated blood pressure caused him to pass out fully clothed on top of the Prostitute with her skirt slightly hiked up.   Another Marine jealously followed them into the men’s room.  Once the Prostitute saw the other Marine she screamed.
That young Marine was convicted of a sex crime just short of, but equivalent to, rape.  His sentence in a Japanese Jail would have killed him.  Americans survive; on average 7 years in Japanese Jails do to the harsh conditions.  After a year in a Japanese Jail the Marine Corps made a deal.  To take custody of the Marine and incarcerate him in the Okinawa Brig for the remainder of his enlistment and recommend to a Discharge Board a Bad Conduct Discharge.
After hearing all the evidence, we the members of the Discharge Board agreed the conviction was a sham.  I personally believed he was convicted because he was Hispanic.  We the Discharge Board voted unanimously “Retention”, meaning he could re-enlist if he desired.  The poor Marine thought that meant returning to the Brig for life.  Our vote blocked the sham of the Japanese Conviction from following him in into his civilian life in the US.  That vote of mine on that Discharge Board was one of the most important things I’ve ever done in my twenty years in the Marine Corps.
You John, are an Elitists with an Agenda.  I’ll do you one better, bring all the troops home.  Let the Chinese rule Asia and the Russians rule Europe.  While we are at it we can send all the Elitists that love collectivism over freedom to the Collectivist Empire of their choice.
Fortress America Forever,

December 2, 2012 at 16:35

Despite my jetlag at the time, I don't remember any american exceptionalism during my week of Japanese cultural training that I received when I first arrived in Sasebo.  I remember being taught about two days worth of survival japanese, i remember being taught basic japanese courtesies.
6,000 crimes over 40 years averages out to 150 crimes a year, I am not sure what the statistics are for stateside troops, but I somehow doubt they are lower.  Some of them are very dramatic and violent and those offenders if guilty, should be punished swiftly, heavily, and publicly for all to sea.  Some of those crimes are minor, and probably would not have been considered crimes at all if the "perpertrator" was japanese.   The Navy needs to make a bigger show of punishing those offenders. 
This is not the same navy as in 1995, the sort of verbal harrassment Dr. Traphagan was subjected to is not tolerated today.  Liberty abroad is no longer treated as a chance to destroy Subic Bay, Pattaya, Hong Kong, or any of the other ports we visit throughout the year, such behaviour results in swift punishment, which often times in today's manning environment means a sailor will no longer be competitive for advancement or even retention. 

Unwelcome Guest
December 2, 2012 at 15:58

US should leave East Asia. pronto.  Do not be surprised Korea, China and japan suddenly decide to kick the Amerikans out.  It has no business dominating another culture.  Do not overstay your welcome.

November 30, 2012 at 18:24

Cracking post.
American's take note!

November 30, 2012 at 15:01

Thank you for this thoughtful article, which sheds a new light on so-called anti-Americanism. I could not agree more. Empathy with people from different cultures is often underdevelopped in the West. It is strange however that it is especially people from the US, who grow up and live in one of the most multicultural societies, who seem to lack such empathy and multicultural awareness. Is this a contradiction or is there some logic behind it that I fail to see? Any comments?

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