The Debate

A Culture Clash?

Nearly 6,000 crimes have been committed by U.S. military personnel since Okinawa was returned to Japan. Is there a path forward?

By John W. Traphagan for

(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. 

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

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.