So Long, Soldiers

Okinawa's Pyramid Club on a Friday night pulsates. The disco is known among the U.S. soldiers for its late-night dancing and not-so-occasional brawls. Sweaty American GIs hip-hop underneath flashing lights. As the beats reverberate through the cavernous disco, the grunts, some sporting gang-style bandannas, play-act at beating each other down. Sometimes the theater turns real, as soldiers fight over local women, spilled drinks or which Marine is more macho. The U.S. brass in Japan have warned the GIs to behave themselves when they're on liberty. But American soldiers--many of them barely 20--will get rough when they've had a dozen-or-so drinks. "One night, all I saw was lots of people fighting," says Marine Cpl. Diamond Kennedy, 27. "Here, they treat it like they can do crazy things and not get caught."

It's when the rowdiness turns to crime that the Okinawans get mad. This month a 19-year-old Marine was charged by Japanese police with breaking into the home of a 14-year-old girl and molesting her while she slept. Okinawans are fed up with such GI obscenities: in 1995 three Marines abducted and raped a 12-year-old--an incident that rattled U.S.-Japan relations and sparked mass protests against the roughly 40,000 American soldiers on Japanese soil. U.S. military officials have been trying to make amends ever since. Last week the Americans were kowtowing again. In a symbolic gesture of subjugation, Lt. Gen. Earl B. Hailston, who oversees the Marines in Japan, humbly bowed to Keiichi Inamine, Okinawa's prefectural governor, and asked forgiveness for his men's behavior. U.S. Ambassador Thomas Foley stooped over as he extended an apology as well. Some Okinawans were not in a forgiving mood. "The discontent is there like a magma underneath a volcano," Inamine told NEWSWEEK recently. "If something should happen there will be an eruption."

No one believes the groping incident has triggered a geopolitical crisis. But the incident was particularly ill-timed, since U.S. President Bill Clinton will head to Okinawa this week for a Group of Eight meeting with the world's most powerful leaders. And last week's American kowtows highlight the delicate position U.S. troops hold in Asia these days. For half a century, the U.S. military has helped keep peace in the region. But anti-U.S. military sentiment has been building for years. The trouble in Okinawa adds to the pressure. "Why can't a little girl sleep safe at her home?" says Okinawan Assemblywoman Suzuyo Takazato. "This is another outrageous example of why the Marines need to go."

Last month's summit between North and South Korea, which raised the prospect of peace between the two enemies, is stirring questions about the future role of the 37,000 U.S. troops on the Korea Peninsula. In the long run, a troop reduction could undercut the American security umbrella in Asia, which includes the forces in Japan and the U.S. Seventh Fleet. If the United States doesn't play its cards right, it could lose some of its influence as a Pacific superpower.

The leaders meeting in Okinawa this week won't be discussing U.S. troops in Asia. Though they will touch on the recent Korean summit, the main focus will be such issues as high-tech development and stemming the spread of disease. But if the North Korean threat fades, it will become less clear who the enemy is--and what the U.S. military should do. That's a point that will be highlighted by the protesters organizing a human chain--with about 25,000 people--around the largest U.S. base in East Asia, Kadena, on July 20.

Though such protests are relatively rare in Japan, small but noisy anti-U.S. demonstrations have become commonplace in South Korea. Last week, as typhoon rains pelted down, 100-odd protesters gathered at a park near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, carrying placards reading 'Yankee go home' and 'Korea is no longer your colony.' "Korea's modern history is the one of invasion by U.S. imperialists," said Father Choi Jong Soo, one of the organizers. In a survey shortly after the North-South summit by Joongang Ilbo, a Seoul daily, 57 percent said U.S. troops should be reduced gradually if North-South Korean relations improve. Eleven percent said the troops should withdraw entirely.

South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has declared the U.S. troops will remain. But anti-U.S. feeling has been rising since a report late last year that U.S. troops killed hundreds of Korean civilians at a village called No Gun Ri during the Korean War. Now the focus of Koreans' anger has shifted to the agreement that governs U.S. troops in Korea, which grants the U.S. military custody of criminal suspects until they are convicted. The U.S. military command in South Korea now suspects that locals have set up anti-U.S. "strike squads" to attack U.S. citizens. To avoid any mishaps, last month, the U.S. brass warned military personnel and families to use a "buddy system" when leaving the bases.

Washington, of course, is quick to point out that despite diplomatic progress in Korea, regional tensions in Asia are as dangerous as ever. The Chinese and Koreans are wary of Japanese rearmament. Taiwan, the Philippines and Japan are worried about a more robust Chinese military. China worries that a proposed U.S. missile-defense program will leave Beijing vulnerable to attack. And Washington policymakers are debating whether Beijing--not Pyongyang--may pose the greatest military threat in the future in Asia (following story). "If you look at Asia as a whole, we have a far less stable situation than we did two years ago," says Henry Stackpole, a retired Marine general who heads the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies. Much of Asia still welcomes the Americans as a protective shield against China. "The meeting in Okinawa is very significant," former Taiwan president Lee Teng-hui told NEWSWEEK. "It underscores that the U.S. plays a very important role in preserving the security of Asia."

That takes troops. But if Washington doesn't play a skillful game of diplomacy, it could be outmaneuvered by Beijing. China, which has stepped up the pressure on Taiwan in recent months, took an active role in smoothing the way for the Korean summit. A unified Korea could either be an ally or a threat, "depending on whose sphere of influence it falls under," says General Hailston. A Korea with strong ties to China could menace Japan and the United States. In the more fluid environment, the United States will have to step gingerly: any hint of American grandstanding could provoke an escalation of arms or incite a backlash among locals. Koreans worry that the Clinton administration, distracted by election-year politics, has put the idea of a lasting peace with the North on hold. "The Clinton administration is not good at long-range thinking on this issue," Donald Gregg, former ambassador to South Korea, told NEWSWEEK. "We have our intellectual pants down."

Despite their irritation, for the moment most South Koreans want the troops to stick around, as a balancing force between China and Japan. Says Kim Jeong Won, an international-relations professor at Seoul's Sejong University: "Only U.S. troops can deter war in the region." But the sense of urgency may fade. Japan's support for Washington's proposed theater-missile defense program, which would shield the United States and allies from short-range missile attacks, has always been lukewarm. "There may be changes to the threat from the North Koreans," says Teruo Komaki, a senior researcher at Tokyo's Institute of Developing Economies. "In the long run, we may have to reconsider theater-missile defense."

As early as two years ago, Japan's former prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa argued in Foreign Affairs magazine that the "U.S. military presence in Japan should fade with this century's end." Though the Japanese still strongly support their country's alliance with the United States, one poll conducted last month by the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo showed that 54 percent would like to see the number of troops reduced. They are largely paid for by the Japanese government--which puts up $5 billion a year. Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party still supports the payments, but opposition parties would like to see the amount reduced.

The 1.3 million Okinawans don't have a say in the matter. The Japanese government considers Okinawa's bases the bedrock of the country's national defense, and is not inclined to alter its security policy based on local frustrations. The bases employ about 8,000 local people, and army-navy stores and English signs dot the streets. Young Okinawans in the capital city of Naha emulate GIs, riding in souped-up cars, playing rap music. But the tropical island is Japan's poorest prefecture, with a jobless rate of 7.9 percent, nearly twice the national average. Okinawans, whose main industries are tourism and agriculture, blame the military bases for choking transportation routes and inflating land prices so much that manufacturers can't afford to set up operations. The 1995 rape heightened Okinawans' resentment of the troops. In a nonbinding referendum in 1996, 90 percent of Okinawan voters demanded a reduction of U.S. military bases. Since then, anti-American sentiment has receded, but it still churns beneath the surface.

Okinawans have never had much control over their destiny. In the 15th century, the island was caught in a power struggle between Japan and China. In 1879 Tokyo made it a Japanese prefecture. Even then the Okinawans were treated as outsiders. During the second world war, scores of Okinawans were killed by the Japanese as suspected spies. In the Battle of Okinawa, which began in April 1945, 200,000 people were killed. After the battle Americans stayed on the island, later using it as a staging area during the cold war. During the Vietnam War B-52 bombers launched raids from the island. In 1972, when the island was returned to Japan, the U.S. bases stayed on as part of the bargain.

To make sure the Koreans and Japanese continue to welcome the Yankees, Washington will have to do some fancy public-relations work. Eight years ago the United States failed to make the case for staying on, and the Philippines kicked the Americans out of the Subic Bay Naval Station and Clark Air Base, which had helped Washington dominate diplomacy in Southeast Asia. In Okinawa, Americans are trying to repair sour relations. The U.S. brass stepped up community service after the rape. Already, GIs are trying to win over the Japanese by participating in local cleanup programs and teaching English to Okinawan schoolkids.

Now they may have to try even harder. At the Tsukinukaisha restaurant in Okinawa, owner Takeo Onaga is glad his traditional Okinawan restaurant caters to tourists--not rowdy GIs. "I think maybe the Marines should leave before another girl gets hurt," says the 42-year-old entrepreneur. "We can get along without them." Across town, at SLUMS disco, Japanese boys with dyed blond hair, gold chains and bandannas are mimicking the GI look. A few soldiers sway bare-chested to the music and swig on beers. "My brother had a big fight with some Air Force guys three weeks ago--it was cool," says one tough kid with a yellow rag on his head. But from now on, the GIs had better keep cool if they want to stick around.