Japan waits patiently for answers in submarine accident

Friday's collision strikes painful chord with Okinawans weary of US troops.

Snappy gut reactions have never been the preferred way in Japan, and this country's response to the crash of a nuclear-powered US submarine into a Japanese fishing boat near Honolulu Friday has been patient.

The wait-and-see attitude has its exceptions - primarily among the families of the nine missing Japanese who have not yet been located from among the 35 people who were on board, and those for whom it hits close to home: Japanese, especially Okinawans, who have grown increasingly unhappy with the side effects of playing host to 47,000 US troops.

The crash of the USS Greeneville has many Japanese withholding judgment until they get answers to important questions: How could the submarine's traffic-detection system not have noticed the Japanese fishing trawler? Why, according to the Japanese boat's captain, did it take almost an hour for the Coast Guard to arrive with aid? Why has the United States been reluctant to raise the sunken ship, lying 1,800 feet below the surface, if there was a chance of rescuing trapped survivors? Most important, some say, will the submarine's captain face prosecution?

"We know that the captain of the submarine was dismissed, but the question is whether he will be brought to martial court," says Masahi Nishihara, the president of the National Defense Academy and an expert on the US-Japan security relationship. "In the past, we've seen that when there were difficulties, [the perpetrators] were not brought to court. If the Japanese begin to be critical of the US treatment of this incident, it might trigger some kind of anti-American sentiment."

The accident comes at a time when there were already new irritants in the sometimes prickly US-Japan relationship. Last week, Japan's front pages ran the embarrassing comments of the top US marine in Okinawa, Lt. Gen. Earl Hailston, whose leaked e-mail called local officials there "nuts and a bunch of wimps." That may have been a reaction to the Okinawa prefectural assembly's passage in January of a resolution to reduce the number of marines on the archipelago. Also in January, a marine was accused of sneaking up on a 16-year-old Okinawan girl, molesting and photographing her. A few days later, a Navy serviceman was arrested on suspicion of breaking an Okinawa bar owner's finger during a brawl, the Associated Press reported. All of these have resulted in numerous apologies from the US; Ambassador to Japan Thomas Foley visited the hometown of some of the missing Japanese to offer support.

The air of tension is hardly the foot the Bush administration wanted to start off on. The Asahi newspaper called the accident "a major blow" to Bush's plans to strengthen the US-Japan relationship. In a TV appearance, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld remained open to the possibility of compensation for families affected by the incident, saying the US would "do the proper thing." Secretary of State Colin Powell said in a separate TV interview that "we're doing everything we can to express our regret and also to make sure this doesn't affect the very strong relationship that we have with Japan."

America's popularity here can be difficult to gauge, and outright resentment appears to be localized. Much of it centers around Okinawa, home to about half of the US troops here, where there is an almost overt dislike between local officials and US military leaders, says Masaaki Gabe, professor of international relations at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa. "Unfortunately, the military men are not diplomats," says Mr. Gabe. "On the surface, they act friendly. But in the deep consciousness, it's difficult for them to believe each other."

The submarine accident could become politicized ahead of July elections for the upper house of the Diet, he adds, if the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) looks too complacent in Japan's relations with America. Newspapers and opposition politicians were sharply critical of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who continued his golf game on Saturday after hearing about the crash. Mr. Mori already has a dreadfully low approval rating, hovering somewhere around 20 percent. "OK, so the US government apologizes for this accident, but they have to show they have mechanisms to avoid these accidents in the future," adds Gabe. "If accidents continue, Japanese will not support the US presence here.… The LDP will lose their supporters."

Perhaps, others argue, but not out of opposition to the Japan-US security relationship. Nishihara says polls show that approximately 75 percent of Japanese support having US troops here and around the region. Japan has an exclusively domestic Self-Defense Force, and to build its military capacity otherwise would require a controversial change in its post-World War II Constitution.

Hiroshi Koyama, a businessman passing through the train station in Nagoya, southwest of Tokyo, gripes that fellow Japanese were willing to pay almost any price to be seen as anti-war. "We should start looking into protecting ourselves," he says. "We cannot depend on the US forever."

Isamu Ueda, of the opposition New Komei Party, says national consensus is still behind the security alliance. "But for the time being, I believe that the Japan-US treaty is still very viable, and I think that my opinion represents the majority of public opinion." He adds: "This is an accident.… I don't think this should be and is going to be a very serious drawback for the relations between the two countries."

Hana Kusumoto in Nagoya, Japan contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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