Thursday 25 March 2021

'Tomodachi' Spirit: US forces in Japan and Yokota Air Force Base

 "Japan and the United States will continue to move forward shoulder-to-shoulder as 'tomodachi' to finish the reconstruction of the Tohoku region." These words were part of a joint statement by Japan and the US to mark the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11th 2011 (usually written as 3/11). Here in Japan, the media has been full of stories of tragedy and resilience over the past month and some of those stories focused on the disaster relief support carried out by the US forces in Japan (USFJ) known as "Operation Tomodachi" (tomodachi means "friend" in Japanese). The ambassador at the time, John Roos, called the operation "a shining example of the importance of the U.S.- Japan alliance," while a writer in the Japan Times noted how 3/11 was pivotal in the development of the Japan-US security alliance.

Non-Japanese (and even many Japanese!) may be surprised to know that Japan is the country with the highest number of active US troops in the world. Japan hosts around 54,000 active military personnel across 85 facilities totalling some 311,000 ㎢ (the main 23 bases are listed here). The USFJ headquarters is Yokota Air Base, 28 Miles Northwest of central Tokyo in Fussa. It is a massive installation, 136,000㎢ with a 3.3km runway, houses, shops, and even a high school!

I have never visited Yokota though my daughter got invited by a friend for trick or treat one Halloween and I have also heard good things about the two-day Friendship Festival in September when the base opens up to the public. With this in mind, I decided to visit the Base Side Street aka Fussa Friendship Promenade which runs along the busy Route 16 in front of the base. While the barbed wire concrete wall is peppered with lots of scary warning signs, the street itself boasts lots of interesting and unique US styled shops and facilities, from fast-food and hip-hop paraphernalia to tattoo parlours and Christian centres of worship.

I tried the bagels at HOOP which has an amazing selection including seasonal flavours - cherry blossom anyone? - and even sweet rainbow ones. One interesting feature is the ability to pay in US dollars and the English menu. Paying in US dollars or credit card is a staple along the strip. The nearby Nicola Pizza even gives discounts (and a free glass of beer!) to those showing their military ID. Right next to HOOP is Blue Seal ice-cream which many Japanese think is American, specifically Hawaiian, but which is actually Japanese. The confusion is understandable: according to Wikipedia, the United States military created the ice cream for its soldiers in Okinawa "to boost morale and give them a familiar taste of home" (its slogan is "Born in America, Raised in Okinawa"). In fact, the first Blue-Seal factory opened on a US base (in 1948) and the ice-cream was not sold to the Okinawan general public until 1963. 

Okinawans may have a soft spot for American ice-cream but American bases are somewhat less popular. While the "tomodachi" narrative dominates most discussions on US troops in Japan - even more so these days as friction with China and North Korea increases - among Japanese who live near US bases another narrative exists, one which sees US troops as a danger and a nuisance and the security treaty as an unequal one that makes Japan little more than a colony of the US. This is especially true in Okinawa where 75% of US bases are located: this means that an astonishing 18% of the main island in Okinawa is effectively US territory! A series of incidents - from noise pollution and aircraft accidents to environmental degradation and crimes committed by US personnel - have created a strong anti-base movement in Okinawa that has seen tens of thousands protest and demonstrate. Indeed, while April 28 1952 is celebrated throughout the rest of Japan as the day sovereignty was returned to the country (主権回復の日), in Okinawa it is known as the day of disgrace/humiliation (県民屈辱の日) since Okinawa remained under US control until 1972 - and, some would argue, remains under (at least partial) US control to this day.

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