Japanese re-militarization: I want planes to anger me

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Osprey 9 flies a test mission. The ship returned to flight July 14 after nearly two years of modifications. The aircraft has updated electrical, hydraulic, electronic warfare and heat-seeking missile countermeasures. (U.S. Air Force photo by James Haseltine)

When a man threatened the exhibition with a container of gasoline, I felt the flames; when the mayor of Nagoya condemned the sculpture, my cheeks burned with anger. I saw this on a screen.

The Aichi Triennale is an international art festival at various venues in Nagoya, in Japan’s Aichi Prefecture. This year, the exhibition featured artworks that had been banned in Japan and elsewhere. Viewers rankled over a sculpture of a “comfort woman”: a person from Korea, China, Indonesia and other occupied territories forced into sexual servitude by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.

The mayor of Nagoya publicly opposed the exhibition. On Aug. 3, a visitor shouted in the venue that the statue was “the worst [he] has ever seen.” Another man put a paper bag over the head of the statue (The Asahi Shimbun, “Director of pulled art exhibition in Nagoya ‘regrets’ decision to give in,” 08.04.2019).

When the exhibition was cancelled, the Aichi governor explained that the organizers had received terroristic threats over the phone, with one protestor “threatening to visit the venue with a container of gasoline if exhibits were not removed.” The exhibition was called “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’.” It was removed at the beginning of August.

Despite my disgust at the censorship of this statue, an anger that rumbles in my chest, I am many many miles from Nagoya and even further removed from the other echoes of Japanese imperialism, like the trade war between South Korea and Japan. This vicious trade war, which is only one example out of many and doesn’t seem to be receiving much media attention in the West, is more a historical battle than a national security issue (Vox, “The escalating trade war between South Korea and Japan, explained” 08.09.2019).

I remember a 7 a.m. at a Tokyo train station where I was met by two men, one old and one youngish, in bright vests like those of volunteer crossing guards. They were kind looking and wore warm smiles. They had megaphones and ministered about the dangers of American aircraft. At their feet were posters of the Osprey, an ugly, clunky, batlike thing. They offered me a pamphlet. I smiled, bowed apologetically and walked past.

Maybe I shouldn’t have.

Statues of “comfort women,” like the one pictured in the above statue, have become the subject of ire and censorship in Japan. Representing an echo of Japanese imperialism and its militaristic past, these statues harken back to a time before Japan’s current pacifist constituition. Courtesy of YunHo LEE via Wikimedia Commons

The Osprey is an aircraft that can take off vertically like a helicopter and travel with the range and endurance of a traditional airplane. Since last October, the American Armed Forces deployed Osprey transport aircraft to Yokota Air Base in Western Tokyo, my hometown of sorts (The Asahi Shimbun, “Deployment of Osprey to Yokota raises concerns among locals,” 10.02.2018). And since last April, when news broke that Special Operations Ospreys were coming to Yokota, protesters like my two early risers have popped up at the train station and main base gate. I remember the posters and banners that spring, the sprawling ones held up by seven or so people in parades, the photos of the aircraft under a seething red no symbol. Several incidents in Okinawa—where the Ospreys first landed in 2012—raised safety concerns among citizens on both the island and mainland Japan. An errant part from a U.S. military helicopter fell onto the roof of a daycare facility in Okinawa, and a few days later a window fell on the grounds of Futenma No. 2 Elementary School (The Mainichi, “Object from US military helicopter falls onto elementary school in Okinawa,” 12.13.2017).

These were the latest of many controversies about the American military, whose blunders date back decades and have formed a fraught relationship between Okinawa and the United States. In 1972, long before the introduction of the Osprey, America ceded control of the island to Japan. Aircraft accidents, brush fires caused by military exercises and murders of locals by American service members stirred up resentment. More recently, Governor Denny Tamaki pleaded with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to remove Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, currently stationed in the middle of a bustling residential city. Tokyo ignored him, carrying on with a relocation project instead. Tamaki remains steadfast. This July, the governor filed suit against the central government in opposition to the construction of an American air base at the less-populated Henoko.

Looking warily at its southern neighbor, it is no surprise that Fussa-shi residents reel at the Osprey, which is a safety hazard for civilians. Military personnel cannot laud “our gracious hosts” in public statements while they consciously ignore their safety.

Fussa, the host city of Yokota Air Base, has definitely profited from its position as an American military town. Skate shops, vintage clothiers, a burger joint and a ’50s-themed antique store all line the street outside of the base. The city is quirky and commercial and seedy in spots, like Bar Row, upon which both American and Japanese authorities keep a close eye. There’s definitely a fascination with Americana, or perhaps its novelty, evidenced by the tourists that flock to Fussa. Lately, in great heat and cold, crowds with cameras perch outside of the barbed wire fence that surrounds the base. They watch the airstrip, rapt, raising the cameras as the aircraft do touch-and-gos or sit idle on the flight line. I don’t know if they are members of the media, or just spectators. The vigils might be for fun; in fact, there is an Okinawa Osprey Fan Club, the members of which praise the thing for its design and potential disaster relief capabilities (Stars and Stripes, “Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft have a Japanese fan club,” 07.10.2018).

I struggle to wrap my head around everything—the quantity of oppositions. Take the disagreements between Okinawan authorities and Japan’s central government in Tokyo; the former opposes American military bases in Japan, while the latter supports them wholeheartedly. In July, Governor Tamaki took to the Fuji Rock stage, argued against the Futenma relocation and went so far as to give a spirited acoustic performance of the doom-laden songs “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” by Creedence Clearwater Revival and “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan. Japan teems with tensions both bilateral and domestic.

While Tokyo considers remilitarization, most Japanese citizens remain pacifists, including myself. Ever since the Cold War, when Japan ceased to be part of America’s anti-Soviet bloc, the central government has pursued partial rearmament. The 1992 International Peace Cooperation Law allowed the country’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to participate in United Nations peacekeeping operations in “non-combat” areas (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Japan’s Contribution to UN Peacekeeping Operations,” 05.14.2015). Over the past few decades, Japan has acquired greater missile defense and disaster relief capabilities. As geopolitical tensions rise in East Asia (territorial disputes with China and North Korean missile tests are the main culprits), the current administration seems as determined to increase the military’s power as the likes of Tamaki are to remove it. Since pretty much all SDF operations are bilateral (involving the U.S. military), the air base issue is representative of this push-pull pacifism in Japan.

There is also the public’s relationship with the SDF in particular. They used to be widely scorned, but after the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan’s lightly-armed forces have won much praise and are increasingly seen as providers of disaster relief. Citizens tolerate the SDF and dislike American armed forces, but the former relies on the latter to exercise military power.

Prime Minister Abe, who is outspoken about expanding Japan’s military, is in a tight spot: the United States has asked the country to help protect shipping from Iran in the Strait of Hormuz, and he would definitely receive criticism from the Japanese public if he complied. But if he didn’t, America would be equally critical. President Trump recently accused Japan of being a security freeloader—on Twitter, of course (Bloomberg, “Trump Push for Hormuz Patrols Puts Japan’s Abe in Tight Spot,” 07.29.2019). He has also mentioned punitive tariffs on auto exports, so whatever the pacifist constitution says, Japanese citizens are likely to see an ever-expanding military due to Washington’s desires for the Japanese armed forces. Considering that the majority of the country opposes revising the constitution to explicitly allow for a military, this creeping remilitarization will doubtless cause more internal political strife (Japan Times, “Poll shows 56% of Japanese oppose amending Constitution under Abe government,” 07.24.2019).

I must confess my sins. Although I recognize that the Ospreys must go, especially if they’re threatening civilians’ safety, I ignored the protesters in front of me. I didn’t feel anything in my chest when I saw the demonstrations, though I burned at the Aichi censorship scandal, which I experienced only through the news. I puzzle over this: Has proximity jaded me? Or is the military issue just too complicated? Have I grown too familiar to the protests and plane noises? Has political analysis destroyed all my feelings? Am I a monster?

My anger is decided, resolute, but selective; in a way I get to pick and choose what to get upset about, but those directly implicated in the censorship and Osprey issues, respectively, do not. Selectivity of anger—getting angry at something rather than scared of its direct dangers—is a luxury that hundreds of Okinawans do not have. I figure the best I can do right now is to write about these things, draw attention to their victims, spread information—and take the damn pamphlet next time.

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