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The Pentagon’s Colonial Pretensions Thrive in Asia : Japan: U.S. strategy remains locked in a Cold War stance. Perhaps the rape of a 12-year-old in Okinawa will shake it loose.

<i> Chalmers Johnson is president of the Japan Policy Research Institute. His most recent book is "Japan: Who Governs?" (Norton, 1995)</i>

It is either deeply ironic or else a case of Freudian overcompensation that one of the least militaristic U.S. administrations is now behaving like a colonial power straight out of the Victorian era.

I am referring to the Defense Department’s unshakable determination to keep roughly 100,000 American troops based in Japan and Korea for the next 20 years. This is an untenable strategy, roughly on a par with the Russian generals who did not want to leave Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall came down.

The Sept. 4 abduction and rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl and the arrest of three American servicemen for the crime, terrible as it was, only served to dramatize the foolishness of the U.S. position.

What we are talking about here is extraterritoriality--one of the most offensive aspects of Western imperialism in East Asia.

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“Extra’lity,” as it is called, meant that if a European, American or Japanese committed a crime in China, the foreigner was turned over to his own consular officals rather than being tried under the law of the country in which the crime was committed. It is not an exaggeration to say that the Chinese Revolution was, in part, fought over this demeaning provision. It reflected the Western belief that Asian law was barbaric and that no “civilized” person should be subjected to it. China finally got rid of extra’lity in 1943, but it still applies today in Japan or Korea if the suspect is in the American armed forces or the spouse or child of someone who is.

The Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement gives U.S. authorities a right to refuse Japanese investigators’ requests to hand over suspects if they are attached to the military.

As a result of the recent protests in Tokyo and Okinawa, the United States and Japan have now signed a “side letter,” allowing soldiers accused of crimes against civilians to be placed in Japanese custody before they are indicted, at the request of Japanese investigators. (In Korea, American military personnel get handed over to local authorities only if they have been convicted by a U.S. military court.)

According to a recent Japanese newspaper poll, only 43.5% of all Japanese still favor the military agreement with the United States. And who can blame them? James E. Auer, a former special assistant for Japan in the Defense Department’s International Security Agency, recently recalled a 1983 incident in which a U.S. missile submarine sliced a Japanese freighter in two, killing the captain and a crewman. Auer believes that this incident was “healed” by “the obvious sincerity of [then] Ambassador Mike Mansfield who, with tears in his eyes, made a deep bow of apology.” Auer goes on to suggest that perhaps the current Administration should send Hillary Clinton to Okinawa on a similar mission while the President is attending the Asian summit in Osaka later this month.

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The Pentagon is looking for a public relations ploy rather than addressing the underlying question: Why must U.S. forces remain in Japan for at least another 20 years, and perhaps forever? There are many equivocal answers given about how pulling out our troops would destabilize the rest of Asia. The closing of two of the largest American military bases outside the United States (Clark and Subic) without even causing a shiver of instability demonstrates the speciousness of this argument.

The real, but usually unstated, answer is that the Pentagon believes that without a U.S. military presence, Japan will become polarized, unstable and perhaps militaristic again.

Such a view is not only deeply insulting to present-day Japanese; by keeping our troops there we are almost sure to inflame the nationalism that could help bring our worst fears about. Moreover, it is simply not possible for the United States to keep the world’s second-largest economy as a permanent ward.

I am not an isolationist and do not propose that the United States abandon a military role in East Asia. What I advocate is that the United States abandon a worthless and untenable role and seek to achieve an effective one. The Pentagon has had half a dozen years to start getting their act together since the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed, but it has remained locked in its Cold War stance. Perhaps the Okinawan rape case has now taken the issue out of their hands.

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