The Unbelievable "Lightness" of the US-Japan Alliance: 
The Ehime-maru Incident in Historical Perspective
MAEDA Tetsuo, Military Analyst.
    Uploaded on 2 May 2001.

[Editor's Note]

On February 9, 2001, the Japanese fishery school training vessel , Ehime-Maru, was sunk by the US nuclear submarine USS Greeneville off Hawaii. Nine Japanese died as a result. The accident, and the initial reactions of the US navy which failed to accept unequivocal responsibility for the incident, gave rise to indignation and discontent on the part of the Japanese people. The author sheds light on this incident from a longer historical perspective on the US-Japanese clashes. 


The nuclear submarine USS Greeneville has inflicted damage on much more than the hull of the fishery training vessel Ehime-maru. Because of the controversy in Japan that arose over this incident, many Japanese have been confronted with the reality that the ties between Japan and the United States, while usually characterized as an alliance, have long been patched together by no more than a flimsy band-aid. Upon removing that band-aid, we rediscover three unhealed wounds that were inflicted by the shared traumas of sixty years past, fifty years past, and of twenty years past. Although the US and Japan have these wounds in common, each country remembers them differently. It is that very process of remembrance that has kept them alive.

Historical Coincidence

Remember back to 1945 to discover the first wound. At dawn on December 7, five Japanese human torpedoes were released by Japanese Navy submarines located 10-19 kilometers due south of the entrance to Pearl Harbor, and aimed at the US naval ships docked there. According to a map in Japanese Defense Agency publication , this attack occurred approximately at the same location where the Ehime-maru was hit. A similar map found in The Attack on Pearl Harbor (available in the USS Arizona Memorial Museum Gift Shop) further labels this as the location where the US destroyer Ward sited Japanese midget subs and subsequently fired on them and attacked them with depth charges. Thus, the author concludes, this incident constitutes the very first shot by the United States in the Pacific War. Subsequently, many US Naval ships were sunk by Japanese air and underwater attack. Of these, the USS Arizona suffered eight direct hits and lost 1177 crewman (out of a total of 1731). 

Now, a memorial museum stands directly over the remains of the battleship Arizona, and it is a popular tourist destination with visitors to Hawaii--especially for Americans. In the 1990s, one other famous historical vessel was moored not far from the Arizona: the USS Missouri, the ship where the Japan and the Allies signed the instruments of surrender after WWII in September, 1945. If the USS Arizona stands as evidence of Japan's "surprise attack" against the United States, then the Missouri exists as a symbol of the United State's successful revenge against that attack and its ultimate victory. Some of the civilian visitors who were aboard the USS Greeneville on the day of the accident were members of the USS Missouri Memorial Association. 

The head of the USS Missouri Memorial Association is Richard Macke, retired US Navy Admiral. Mr. Macke was the Commander of US Military Forces in the Pacific, of which the headquarters is located at Pearl Harbor. While in office in 1995, Macke offered the following comment on the rape of an Okinawan girl by US servicemen: "If they had enough money to rent a car they used that night, they should have spent it on prostitutes instead." This comment eventually led to his resignation.

Newspapers report that it was Macke who put in the request that resulted in the Memorial Association members presence on the Greeneville in February. This means that the emergency surfacing "demonstration," as Commander in Chief (US Pacific Fleet) Thomas B. Fargo phrased it, was conducted for the benefit of these observers, the members of the USS Missouri Memorial Association, in that historically significant part of the Pacific Ocean off Hawaii. Nationalism and the complexities of history played perhaps a greater role in the process thatled up to the collision of the nuclear submarine with the training vessel than one might initially assume.

It would be easy to regard all facts as mere coincidence if there were not more to the story. However, in the reactions of at least one segment of the US public to this incident, one can tell that anti-Japanese sentiments still exist. Coverage of US reactions to the Ehime-maru news provides evidence of this lingering sentiment. For example, on the bulletin board of the city of Honolulu's web site, one can find comments such as "Japanese ships have no right to be anywhere near Pearl Harbor" and "The US controls the seas here. Foreign ships go away!"(2/19/01 Mainichi Shinbun , evening edition).

But such xenophobic attitudes do not only exist in the United States. The Japanese national newspaper the Yomiuri Shinbun featured on its front page a photograph of the sunken Ehime-maru on the ocean floor (2/19/01). It placed in close proximity to this photo an article about NOROTA Yoshishige's (Chairperson of the Budget Appropriations Committee of the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee) neo-nationalist speech in which he called the Pacific War the "Greater East Asian War," and came dangerously close to condoning Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. Norota, the paper reported, claimed that Japan had no choice but to try to ensure supplies of natural resources in Asia in the1930s and 1940s, and thus placed the blame for the Imperial Japan's actions on US and Allied embargos. Such attitudes toward history have much in common with the anti-Japan sentiments expressed recently on the Honolulu web site.

Some psychological significance can also be found in the different ways that the two countries refer to the site of the Greeneville collision. The Japanese media says that the accident happened "off shore in Hawaii," while US sources refer to the same location as "the ocean near Pearl Harbor." Even sixty years after the war, this suggests that citizens on both sides of the Pacific have still not completely abandoned negative images of former enemies.