Okinawa resident Terumi Tokuda, left, cuts down pieces of his collapsed home in the town of Henoko as Lance Cpl. Mitchell C. Dunson, with Combat Assault Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, assists on Oct. 17 following Typhoon Jelawat. Okinawa Marines regularly take part in community activities on the island. (LANCE CPL. JOSE D. LUJANO / MARINE CORPS)
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The report came into Marine Corps officials in Japan last spring: A young, inebriated Marine vandalized as many as 19 cars in the Okinawa village of Kin.
Robert D. Eldridge knew the image of another out-of-control Marine could fuel local critics of the U.S. military presence in Japan and damage the relationship between Marines and residents in the community outside the gates at Camp Hansen.
Eldridge, the Marine Corps Installations Pacific assistant deputy chief of staff for government and external affairs, figured the best approach was to tackle it head-on — and quickly. The damaged cars belonged to students at a nearby vocational school.
"We went to the school to apologize and begin measures to remedy the situation," he said.
In the months since, Marines at Camp Hansen have boosted rapport with the school and the affected students. Both the meeting and the help went unreported in the local press, Eldridge said, but he believes quick response can diffuse local concerns and turn bad incidents "into maybe positive things."
In Okinawa, which hosts 35,000 of the 50,000 U.S. service members assigned in Japan, averting trouble and improving local ties is a full-time mission for the U.S. military, and especially the Marine Corps. Nearly 10,000 Marines, a mix of permanent commands and deploying units, are based in six camps on the island.
It's by no means an easy mission.
While the U.S.-Japan alliance has lasted more than 60 years, the political relationship remains a fragile one. Criticisms from anti-U.S. groups and local press largely hostile to the military presence get louder with each report of crime, mishap or misconduct involving U.S. service members, particularly in Okinawa, where locals refer to the burden of hosting so many U.S. troops as "the base problem." Serious crimes like rape and murder involving Americans draw even heavier fire from government and military leaders in Tokyo, where seemingly endless election cycles shift political control and delay critical decisions. That included "host nation" approval for the basing of MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, which drew huge protests in October over their safety record.
"Who really represents the people varies," Eldridge said of Okinawa. "It's a very complicated relationship."
The subtropical island, home to 1.4 million people, is dotted with densely populated cities and rural villages, many with their own elected officials.
"If you ask them, I believe sincerely that they do really appreciate the U.S. military," said Eldridge, a former professor at Osaka University and 23-year resident of Japan. "They may not like some of the inconveniences, but they also recognize some of the benefits."
Just how much support does the U.S. military have among Okinawans? It's hard to tell. Discussions involving the U.S. military, said Eldridge, are "emotional, versus rational, and it's hard to have a rational discussion on an emotional issue." Continuing controversies, whether from noisy aircraft, off-duty incidents involving Marines or environmental battles over the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a more rural coastal site, seem to skew perceptions.
The latest flare-up came with the arrests and local indictments of two U.S. sailors for an Oct. 16 rape of a local woman. Top U.S. officials in Tokyo apologized for the attack. U.S. Forces Japan imposed a stricter 11 p.m. curfew on service members. Top commanders issued reminders about the expectations of staying out of trouble and maintaining good order and discipline.
"The bottom line is that we are all under a magnifying glass," Lt. Gen. Kenneth J. Glueck Jr., III Marine Expeditionary Force commander, told Marines at an Oct. 24 all-hands talk at Futenma. "We can talk about how our incident rates are down, but what I need you to do is to go out there and prove it. Prove that we have a good liberty campaign, that we are good neighbors in Okinawa and that we respect the people of Okinawa.
"Think about your actions and demonstrate that we are good stewards, neighbors and ambassadors and that we respect the customs, traditions and people of Japan," Glueck said.
Still, critics complained the U.S. wasn't doing enough to prevent bad behavior. To make it worse, off-duty U.S. servicemen, including a Marine lieutenant and a junior enlisted Marine, were arrested in a half-dozen incidents, including trespassing, assault and public urination, despite the curfew.
Such minor crimes usually are ignored as public nuisances. But it's no surprise that these "are getting more attention lately because of the rape case," said James L. Schoff, an Asia Program senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Okinawan government figures show arrests and crimes involving U.S troops have dropped significantly since the 1990s. But the latest rape case stirred local memories and drew references to 1995, when two Marines and a sailor were convicted of raping a 12-year-old girl. At the time, Okinawa saw some of its largest protests, which led to the ongoing plan to slash the number of Marines on the island. The military stepped up its cultural awareness training and, at times, dispatched more off-base patrols to the popular club and bar areas.
"Since the rape in '95, the Marines, in particular, have made great strides in improving their community relations," Schoff said.
But it's not a perfect relationship. It seems every few years comes a rash of crimes and misconduct that leads to a liberty crackdown and eventual easing of the restrictions. But doubts and mistrust remain.
In Japan, where most residents have little connection to their own military, the proximity to U.S. service members makes it easy for negative impressions to take hold. They see troops, "warts and all, much more frequently," Schoff said. But those perceptions can change quickly, he said, as they did during Operation Tomadachi, in which Marines, sailors and other U.S. troops helped residents devastated by the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Fukushima.
"That's their vision of the U.S. military … as kind, competent, helpful," he said.
Smaller-scale missions happen just about daily throughout Okinawa, where a half-dozen community relations specialists, working at six camps, do the grassroots work of building ties between Marines and local residents.
"The situation here in Okinawa is not as bad as it's reported in the media," said Kaori Martinez, MCIPAC's community relations officer at Camp Foster for the past 15 years. "The majority of the silent supporters are people who really enjoy the presence of the military here."
Marines take part in 1,500 community events a year, mingling with locals for beach cleanup, rehabilitation projects at schools and orphanages, and local festivals. "That's three or four a day," noted Capt. Caleb D. Eames, a III MEF spokesman and public liaison. "We are absolutely focused on being good neighbors for our communities."
Relationship building is a constant job, said Ichiro Umehara, a community relations specialist at Camp Courtney. In Uruma City, he found many friendly residents, "especially older people who recognize how the Marine Corps contributes locally," he said. "Unfortunately, the younger generation doesn't know that and doesn't have a chance to meet young Marines." But school exchanges, programs to help small businesses network with Americans, and English-language programs for teens and adults are helping close the gap, he said.
While senior Marine Corps leaders in Okinawa meet regularly with government officials, including the prefecture governor and national elected officials, the day-to-day work happens as camp commanders and community liaisons meet and talk with residents, officials and business owners.
At a Nov, 28 special session to address local concerns, officials expressed anger over the latest crimes.
"They said, this happens again and again," Martinez said.
At the same time, business owners railed against the curfew, which has eliminated many of their customers while business is up 30 percent at on-base restaurants and clubs.
Naha city officials complained that new "courtesy patrols" — three-member teams of Marines walking the city's popular entertainment district - would hurt tourism. But unlike courtesy patrols outside other camps, those Marines wear civilian clothes so they don't stand out, Martinez said.
"It's very important our leaders be aware of the consequences of what we decide," she said. "There are frustrations out there."