The news was almost too unbelievable to comprehend at first: On February 9, an American submarine, practicing an emergency-surfacing maneuver off the coast of Hawaii, hit a Japanese fishing vessel on the way up, sinking the boat. The collision took the lives of nine aboard the Ehime Maru, including four Japanese high school students that were onboard.
Taken out of context, this incident was horrible enough. But the reaction by the Navy and the Bush administration has only exacerbated the situation. To begin with, relations between Japan and the US had already been growing more tense, after a series of ill-advised comments by Bush and his Treasury Secretary and multiple incidents at the American base in Okinawa, Japan. But after the disaster in the Pacific, the Navy hedged, assuming some blame but also suggesting that the Japanese trawler was somehow to blame as well. Meanwhile, Bush, in his first significant foreign policy move, deflected international attention and bombed Iraq. Now, weeks later, the news gets more and more incriminating for the Navy each day.
Moreover, news reports have indicated that the Japanese vessel had indeed been located by the Americans, but for some reason, that information was never communicated to the captain in charge of the submarine. The civilians on board and the captain have been set up to take the fall for this incident, and rightly so. There will be a public court of inquiry, which is apparently highly irregular, but all indications are that the Navy would like to smooth this over as soon as possible. Unfortunately for them, all indications are that the families of the teenagers killed in the wreck have every intention of suing the United States, and there seems to be little reason to think that they won’t win, dragging this international crisis on even longer.
Popular sentiment in Japan towards the United States has inevitably soured in the wake of this tragedy. And the continued presence of large numbers of American troops in Okinawa only serves as a harsh, and now largely unnecessary, reminder of the U.S. government’s attempt at hegemony in the Pacific. A reduction in the number of U.S. troops stationed in Japan is the solution to rehabilitating the severely damaged relationship between the United States and one of its most important allies and trading partners.
The Navy, and the Bush administration, failed to realize the gravity of the situation surrounding the Ehime Maru incident, and refused to accept that the United States had done something really, really bad. This failure was further compounded by the ill-will generated by the actions of American servicemen in recent months. The only way to restore U.S.-Japan relations now is for President Bush to realize the importance of scaling back the American military presence in Japan, and to let the healing process begin.