COLUMN ONE : U.S. Forces in Japan on Defensive : Dollar's decline and easing of Cold War threat strain ties between sailors and port town's residents. Such tensions, and alleged rape of Okinawa girl, make many ask if America's military should go home.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

U.S. Navy engineer Oswald Green flinches, then shares his secret about how he manages to play in one of the world's most expensive countries on a salary of $1,200 a month: He lets his Japanese dates pay for everything.

Green, 25, has let women wine and dine him with grilled beef and Chinese feasts; they shower him with presents, even a leather jacket. He knows guys who have been given cars or had apartments rented for them--but it doesn't exactly make a proud U.S. military man feel tall.

"You feel like crap," Green said, wearing a Chicago Bulls T-shirt in the chill night wind outside the U.S. naval base in Yokosuka near Tokyo. "But," he added philosophically, "you could be proud and broke, or you could say: 'Hey, she has the money. Let her pay.' "

If anything illustrates the shift in the relationship between the U.S. military and its Japanese hosts over the past 50 years, it may be this hot spot where young women with henna-dyed hair and fat wallets hang out to meet the eligible paupers of the U.S. Navy. Here, 22,000 Americans support the 11 forward-deployed ships of the U.S. 7th Fleet docked at Yokosuka--a port town of 430,000 known for its sailors, fishing fleets and shipbuilders--and a host of bars and shops with names like Tennessee and Buffalo that have sprung up to serve them.

But over the two decades during which the dollar has lost three-fourths of its value against the yen, soldiers and sailors--who once bought silk kimonos as souvenirs, drank with abandon and paid for their dates--have drastically reduced their sprees. Base jobs once paid Japanese workers three times the local salary; now they've lost their luster as Japan's economic rise has lifted the pay of even female office clerks above that of the average U.S. enlisted man.

The economic shift has markedly changed perceptions. Many shopkeepers who once put up with the sailors' boozing and brawls for their businesses' sake say they wish the Americans would just go home.

Japanese taxpayers, who are assuming an ever greater share of base expenses, have begun to view the once-omnipotent military forces as mere contract employees, said Yoshimi Ishikawa, a social commentator.

Although security agreements require the United States to pay for all Japanese employed on base, Japan began picking up the costs in what it calls a "sympathy budget" under a special provision negotiated in 1989. Japan's 74% share of Japanese employees' costs is scheduled to rise to 100% next year under the 1960 security treaty, which obliges the United States to come to Japan's defense in the event of an armed attack and allows it the use of Japanese land and facilities.

Overall, the Japanese offer the most generous support of all U.S. allies: about $3.3 billion annually for costs such as labor, utilities, facilities improvement and land rental and $715 million more for such special items as tax exemptions.

Smoldering Resentment Erupts

But such financial aid, along with Japan's growing confidence in itself, has gradually increased frustration among the Japanese over their role as a lesser partner to the United States in security decisions, Ishikawa and others say.

Such "smoldering feelings" of resentment erupted after a 12-year-old girl was allegedly beaten and raped last month on the southern island of Okinawa by three U.S. servicemen, said Koichi Kato, the leader of the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party. When the U.S. military declined to hand the suspects to Japanese police until indictment, citing security agreements, critics said Japan was still being treated as a conquered nation.

As the economic benefits of the bases diminish and their military necessity comes into question in the post-Cold War world, and as Japanese taxpayers increase support for bases that seem to be mainly nuisances in return, more people have begun to wonder: What, exactly, are the Americans doing here anyway?

"Government officials understand the U.S. presence is important with growing instability in the international situation, even after the end of the Cold War," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said. "But to the average person, the benefits seem small. They wonder why they have to pay so much in taxes, why they have to put up with crime. There's a mood being built not to put up with this."

That mood is reflected in the intensive media coverage of U.S.-Japan security arrangements in the aftermath of the Okinawa incident. For three decades, the issue has been largely untouchable and unquestioned. Even today, many Japanese feel the U.S.-Japan alliance was foisted on them without an adequate chance to fully explore security options, said Seiki Nishihiro, a former Defense Agency deputy minister.

Although violent protests against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty rocked the nation in 1960, the unrivaled rule of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party during the Cold War kept a lid on most dissent and even discussion. But since the Okinawa rape, the arcane language of the Status of Forces Agreement between the two countries has been highlighted on the nightly news for the first time. Areas of the accord deemed unfair to Japan, such as its sections on criminal procedures and financial guarantees, have been dissected and explained.

Leading members of the LDP are calling for revisions of security arrangements--a position that had until now been "monopolized" by the Socialists and Communists, said Kato, newly appointed secretary general of Japan's largest party.

Although the treaty remains vital to Japan and to the stability of Asia, Kato said, it is time to "redefine" the agreement and negotiate such issues as the nation's growing needs for military airspace and telecommunication frequencies now used by the U.S. forces.

"The Okinawa incident has awakened the public to the security treaty for the first time in 30 years," Ishikawa said. Unless the Japanese begin to fully debate their own destiny as far as security issues are concerned, he added, they will always be crippled by a sense of forced dependency on America that fuels resentment and distorts the nations' relationship.

Anxiety in Washington

The political backlash is causing anxiety in Washington, which has tried to show regret for the alleged Okinawa rape with an official apology, a one-day stand-down of forces, a ban on on-base alcohol sales after 9 p.m. and a fund-raiser among troops to compensate the victim.

But a senior Clinton Administration official in Washington said the United States is unwilling to go beyond small revisions in security agreements and would "ultimately beat back" attempts to change the treaty itself. "People who want to lobby against U.S. forces in Japan are going to do it, whether we like it or not," the official said. "Hopefully, this will die down."

National moods blow hot and cold with startling speed in Japan, and President Clinton's state visit next month is expected to smooth things over--especially if the United States agrees to revise the criminal procedures under attack. Under current agreements, U.S. military suspects remain in American hands until indictment; the Japanese want custody after arrest. The three suspects are now in Japanese hands awaiting trial on charges of rape, battery and illegal confinement.

Despite official statements of mutual support, both sides acknowledge that they must work harder to explain to ordinary Japanese--and Americans--why 40,000 U.S. troops are stationed in a nation with no obvious enemy, exorbitant prices and increasing needs for the land, airspace and public dollars being diverted for military use.

To many here, those concrete realities loom larger than the abstract, if important, reasons offered for the U.S. presence by Capt. Bill Lynch, commander of fleet activities at Yokosuka: to maintain "geopolitical influence," "economic stability and growth in Asia" and "regional security."

Such terms mean little to Keiji Kiba, 72, a Yokosuka shopkeeper whose military customers have plummeted from 70% of his clientele two decades ago to zero. The yellowed pages of his accounting books are filled with names like Johnnie Morris and Robert Glover ordering sailor uniforms for $30. At today's prices of $600 per uniform, Kiba has no more military customers; he has since turned to selling antique ship parts.

"To me, the bases have lost their meaning," Kiba said. "Now [the sailors] just cause a nuisance. They have bad manners and throw trash around. I'd like them to leave Japan."

Down the road, Akemi Mori said she put up with rude behavior and even a black eye from a drunken sailor because the American military once made up the entire clientele for her silk jackets emblazoned with tigers, dragons and decorative lettering. The jackets cost $5 apiece in 1970 and $100 today; all of her customers now are Japanese.

Asked why the bases are here, Mori paused. "I can't answer that," she said.

The question initially stumped a group of teen-agers on a corner of Yokosuka's famous Dobuita Street, lined with shops and bars, until Yoshiya Kumagai, 18, piped up: "We're paying them money, so we expect them to help us. Japan can't go to war, so America is doing it in place of us."

But he added, "It doesn't matter to me whether they're here or not."

'Irritation Quotient' on Rise

A new poll by the Nihon Keizai Shimbun newspaper shows that the proportion of Japanese who want to dissolve the U.S.-Japan security alliance rose to 40% from nearly 29% last month--with those in their 40s and younger more likely to oppose the alliance. The proportion of supporters dropped to 43% from 59%, the survey showed.

A U.S. official said the "irritation quotient" among Japanese toward the bases is rising. Public intolerance of the noise caused by landing practice, for instance, compelled the Japanese government in 1991 to relocate the U.S. Air Force's main training field from Atsugi Base 20 miles south of Tokyo to Io Jima, an uninhabited island 800 miles to the southwest.

"As communities expand around the bases, there is more irritation about the things [we do] that interfere with daily life," said the official.

To Japanese who grew up around the bases just after the war, the U.S. military presence once was far more welcome.

Commentator Ishikawa recalls the hams and sausages, the chocolates and sugar the GIs would pass out to the hungry Japanese when he was a schoolboy in the town of Oshima, which housed a Coast Guard base. The base provided his older brother with a cooking job that paid $3 a day--three times the local wage. It also brought an exotic culture to the then-insulated Japanese: Hollywood movies and jazz, Thanksgiving and Christmas, Playboy magazine pinups and American cigarettes.

"Through the bases, Japanese learned about the American way of life and felt a sense of awe," Ishikawa said.

Teiji Takemiya has seen the evolution in public attitudes toward the U.S. military as a Japanese employee at Yokosuka since 1945. "During the occupation, they were heroes, the saviors pulling the Japanese out of the turmoil of war," said Takemiya, now director of military liaison and civil affairs.

During the Korean War, he recalled, Yokosuka provided as many as 50,000 jobs for Japanese compared with 4,600 today. During that heyday, Yokosuka had 150 bars; the number is down to 30, he said. Bottles of beer were 10 cents versus $5 today; bartenders used to keep pails on the floor to throw in the endless stream of money.

Even today, shopkeepers on Dobuita Street recall the days when people parlayed their earnings from the sailors into lucrative land buys. Every store would take care to hire an English-speaking staff member. Few, if any, do so today.

"We had money and were catered to; now we're tolerated," said Gerald Havens, who helps families relocate to Japan as a manager in the Family Service Center at Yokosuka.

And sometimes not even tolerated: Some bars and pubs display "No Americans allowed" signs because sailors have unwittingly racked up bills of $150 for a few beers and snacks, and, shocked by their debts, have skipped out, Havens said.

Heroes No More to Japanese

Today, Takemiya delicately said the U.S. forces are seen as people "who need a little more education in the [Japanese] culture, people and customs." Are they still seen as heroes? "No," he said abruptly.

The U.S. Navy conducts a mandatory three-day intercultural relations program for new military and civilian personnel that includes instruction on Japanese baths and toilets, removing shoes before entering a home and such cultural taboos as leaving chopsticks stuck in a bowl of rice. Yokosuka also opens its gates to the community for several events, such as "friendship day," cherry-blossom parties and a portable shrine parade. People from the base work with orphans and at community sports meets and other activities.

Some military wives, such as Terry Diak, teach English and through that convey aspects of American culture such as Halloween traditions. Gayla Lippert exchanges baked goods with her Japanese neighbors. Still, they fret that the dollar's plunge in value against the yen has hampered their ability to contribute more to the Japanese economy.

Diak and others say they resort to U.S. mail-order catalogues instead of buying clothes locally, see movies on base for $2 instead of $17 outside and eat sushi twice a month instead of twice a week. Increasingly confined to base life, "you're forced to put blinders on," Diak said.

Yeoman Jimmy Williams, 25, hasn't had to crimp his lifestyle in the five years he's been here. But he doesn't drink or smoke, has learned Japanese, has made local friends who let him into clubs and parties for free--and managed to save enough money to buy a $4,500 stereo set. He admits he is an exception.

Green, the engineer, may be more typical. Although he's had plenty of Japanese dates in his two years here, he says he wishes there were a naval program to encourage more interaction between sailors and local Japanese--discussion forums, language exchange and the like.

Like many of the others, he says the dollar's diminishing value has weakened his ties with the community by keeping him on the base more, where he whiles his time away in such free activities as playing basketball. When he does venture out, he says people are "blatantly rude," shoving him or refusing to sit next to him on buses.

"It's not an attractive place," Green said. "The first year you're getting drunk and acting stupid. Then you start asking yourself, 'Why are we here?' and sometimes you don't like the answers. Instead of making circles in the water, I'd rather be in a place like Bosnia--at least I'd know I have a purpose," said Green, who joined the Navy for the $25,000 college grant and does not plan to re-enlist.

As personal and economic ties diminish, as the presence of the U.S. military shrinks in the Japanese mind, analysts here say the two countries can no longer take each other for granted. "During such shaky times for the security treaty with America, the Japanese will for the first time realize its importance," Kato said.

* Times staff writer Jim Mann in Washington and Megumi Shimizu of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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