Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.10.15

A Nation That Remembers Its Friends

JBpress on October 10, 2014

On November 29, 2003 Tokyo lost two diplomats in Iraq. Ambassador Katsuhiko Oku and Masamori Inoue were attacked and murdered near Tikrit on their way to Mosul. At that time their loss was very deeply felt by many because they had been the vanguard of Japan's humanitarian missions in Iraq. However, eleven years later, the silent majority of Japanese don't seem to remember them.

When this year's powerful Typhoon #18 (named Phanfone outside Japan) hit Tokyo last week, I was staying at a beautiful resort hotel in Southern Okinawa. The sky was blue and the waters calm. We heard no "sound of freedom," from the frequent take-offs and landings of U.S. military aircraft based in the mid-western part of the island.

If you are rich enough to squeeze in a week in Okinawa, Japan, this hotel on Hyakuna beach should be your destination. The Pacific that you see from an open air luxury bath tub on the roof of the hotel will literally pacify you. Things look different when you look at the rest of the world from this small formerly independent maritime kingdom inside another island nation.

Some in Okinawa still assert that the American forces should leave the island. They seem to say so without knowing what would happen if and when the U.S. forces actually left. There is a precedent for this. In November 1991, a dozen years before Oku and Inoue were killed, the U.S. Navy and Air Force left the Philippines.

The Filipino Senate of the time voted against renewing the U.S.-Philippines base agreement so that a huge power vacuum was created at the end of November that year. Only three months later the Chinese government announced a new law called the "Territorial Waters Act" which declared that all the isles in the East and South China Seas were Chinese territories.

23 years later, the Filipinos finally admitted the mistakes they made in 1991 when they concluded a new military agreement with the United States at the end of April 2014, accepting a "rotational U.S. military presence" in the South China Sea. Similar lessons were recently relearned when ISIS filled the power vacuum created by the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011.

The Okinawans must know who would fill the strategic vacuum if the U.S. forces left their island. They should also be aware which nation remembers friends and which doesn't. A few weeks ago, before leaving for Okinawa, I personally experienced a typical example of this, when I learned about a visit by General David Petraeus to Tokyo (retired from government service, he visited Japan in his current capacity as Chairman of the KKR Global Institute think tank).

When he learned that there is a tree planted in memory of Ambassador Oku and Mr. Inoue at Japan's Foreign Ministry, he immediately changed his tight business schedule in Tokyo to visit the tree for a moment of silence. The following is his quote on this visit, which I have not edited so as to reproduce his genuine sense of friendship and respect for Japan and its diplomats.

"Japan lost two of its finest diplomats in Iraq on November 29, 2003, when Ambassador Katsuhiko Oku and Masamori Inoue were killed in Tikrit. This tragedy was deeply personal for me, as Ambassador Oku and Mr. Inoue were en route to meet me in Mosul when they were murdered; at the time, I was commander of the 101st Airborne Division, responsible for northern Iraq. I had met them before and was eagerly anticipating their return so that we could continue our discussions of how Japan could contribute to some of the reconstruction efforts in Mosul. "

"During my recent visit to Tokyo, I was very grateful to have the opportunity to pay my respects to the memories of Ambassador Oku and Mr. Inoue by visiting the tree planted in their honor in the courtyard of Japan's Foreign Ministry. It was a privilege to have several of their former colleagues from the Ministry stand with me in saluting the two great Japanese diplomats who gave their lives during the effort in Iraq. "

"It is a solemn duty to remember the courageous service and sacrifice of those with whom we have served in missions seeking to contribute to international peace and stability -- and to remember the countries with whom America is allied. In Tokyo last week, it was an honor to recall the importance of America's alliance with Japan while also remembering, at the site of the tree planted in their honor, the tragic loss of two of Japan's finest diplomats."

Nothing needs to be added. There is a nation that remembers its friends and another which does not. It is gratifying to know that there is a general who still remembers his Japanese war pals in Iraq eleven years later. That's what the silent majorities of Japanese and Okinawans must keep in mind in this world of instability and unpredictability.