After the crash, local Okinwan newspapers (published in Japanese) highlighted the seriousness of the incident, and called for an end to all flights from the base. Okinawans have since taken to the streets in the thousands to demand an immediate and permanent end of flights from the base, and its return to civilian use.
In contrast, English language coverage of the crash, sometimes even in the same newspapers, has been strangely muted. Asked to help translate the story for a leading Okinawan newspaper's weekly English news digest, I was told to write a brief containing only a few lines, because the topic was considered "unsuitable." This was after the incident had dominated local headlines for over a week.
Seven apparently more minor items which had appeared during the same week were instead considered more suitable. Most prominent was the governor's trip to Bolivia to celebrate 50 years of Okinawan emigration: a story which neglected to mention that many of those who emigrated there left after being evicted from land now occupied by the US helicopter base. The story also avoided rekindling memories of false promises made about financial and other support which the US government was to provide after the emigrants arrived in South America.1
Also considered more suitable for the page were items about a yet to be confirmed merger of municipal governments in central Okinawa, and an annual village tug of war festival.2 When challenged about this hierarchy of stories, the editor of the English page claimed that it should not contain political material, but rather focus on cultural items.
I had been involved in translating political stories (at the request of three English page editors, including the current one) for over four years, and this was the first time I had heard of such a policy. Besides, wasn't a story about the reorganization of local government political? In response, I extended the Okinawa crash story to cover a large portion of the briefs column I was responsible for. The column was subsequently rejected, prompting my resignation.
The same newspaper also refused to print an opinion piece I had written complaining about the use by international news agencies of the US military's verb of choice - graze - which along with gcliph was used to describe the impact of the helicopter against our Administration Building. At the same time, I attempted to dispute the claim, made by the Japan Times, that the university was "virtually empty" at the time of the crash.3 The piece, I was told, was rejected on the grounds that it was considered "too controversial."
This occurred a week after I'd registered a similar complaint with the Japan Times itself on August 17. This eventually appeared in the newspaper, though not until September 1, allowing the misleading account of the crash to fester in the public consciousness for over two weeks, providing an opportunity for the US military to resume some operations and create the kind of "facts in the air" we remain determined to resist.4
So far, the Daily Yomiuri, which on August 26 printed my open letter to Colonel Richard Lueking, the base commander at Futenma, has been the only major English language media source to promptly go into print with an opinion which goes against the view that the crash was of minor importance and should be ignored: a pattern of behaviour reminiscent of US military news management of Okinawa's past scandals.5
Why has the English language press in Japan proved so reluctant to print the truth about the Okinawa International University crash? Speculation has landed on the fear of libel action, though this seems improbable, as such action would be unprecedented, and likely to draw greater worldwide attention to the incident. Such a fear is also difficult to attribute to the rejection of the translation I was involved in producing for the local newspaper. This was based on an article from the newspaper itself, and contained no facts or assertions which could be contested in court. In addition, could making an article too long be construed as a reason to provoke litigation? Opinions are also unlikely to be libelous unless they stray onto legal territory, which my opinion piece did not. Besides, the Daily Yomiuri6 was at least willing to raise my question about the possibility of criminal negligence being a factor behind the countless crashes of various types of ageing and otherwise suspect US military helicopters over the last few years.7
Perhaps instead, press timidity could be understood as the result of a more pernicious and ongoing form of intimidation on the part of the US government and its agents.
A clue could lie in an experience I had shortly after arriving in Okinawa. At that time I was working part-time for a university on one of the 38 US military facilities here, and was asked by a colleague to write to an American military oriented English language newspaper in support of a US naval officer facing a court martial for refusing an anti-anthrax vaccination. (Medical research had highlighted safety concerns about the vaccine, and international agreements had established clearly in my mind that compelling military personnel to undergo vaccination against their will was a breach of the Geneva Convention.)
The officer eventually achieved a measure of victory, avoiding a dishonorable discharge and therefore vindicating his stand, though only after spending 60 days in military prison and being forced to accept a demotion for disobeying an order.
I thought little about the case after that until I found an article containing my name written by Stephen Carr, the editor of the newspaper which had published the original letter.8
Carr recalled how he had received a phone call "from a sinister sounding individual wanting to know the whereabouts of Peter Simpson." He then commented that the speaker identified himself as "an attorney" for "the government."
When asked which government, the caller simply said, in what Carr described as "gravelly, menacing tones," the US one."
Thankfully, Carr put the caller on indefinite hold and wrote about the incident, rather than divulge my identity. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to discover how widespread such intimidation is, and how this affects journalistic integrity within the English language media more generally.
It might also be worth raising the question, in passing, of how such behaviour can be squared with the USfs supposed commitment to promoting freedom and democracy.
Whether or not there is any connection between the incidents, the reporting of the crash indicates how reluctant the English language press is to bite the hands that feed it with half-truths and falsehoods. It also shows how willing it is to tone down controversial news stories, as well as how slow and reluctant it is to print any views and accounts of events which differ from those concocted by the US and its allies in Tokyo.
Perhaps as a result, journalists need reminding that, whatever language they write in, the old adage holds true: "What someone doesn't want you to publish is journalism; all else is publicity."