31 March 2012

Military Estates

Nick Sowers

I step off the train in a western Tokyo suburb at 8 am. A few minutes' walk past the mini-marts and four-story apartment blocks brings me to Camp Zama, headquarters of the United States Army in Japan. I approach the pedestrian gate where a Japanese guard stands, automatic shotgun at the ready. I show him my American passport and proceed to a call box, where I phone ahead to my contact, Fukaya-san. He is a Japanese civilian who works for the Army's Installations Management Division.
While I am waiting for my escort, under observation by the guard, I study the base edge. A column of 12-story apartment buildings springs up from the sprawling city and looms over the base like towers over Central Park. [see e_tower.jpg] The barbed-wire fences and weathered 'No Trespassing' signs hold this piece of land at bay from the city's appetite. It is astonishing that sixty-four years after the surrender, Tokyo still has American troops occupying its corners. While the Soviet threat—for four decades the principle justification for continued US occupation—has passed, North Korea, China, and a 9/11 repeat are among the perceived threats which perpetuate the US presence in Japan. Whether or not the bases are necessary, I am here to study what impact they have on the surrounding civilian fabric.
As cities develop around military bases once laid out far from city limits, the noise complaints, zoning conflicts, and repossession of military land begin to chew away at the operative capabilities of the base. The proper military term for this is 'urban encroachment,' something important enough that the RAND Corporation recently produced a study on it entitled The Thin Green Line (2007). Many bases in urban areas have set aside staff to seek out ways to mitigate encroachment. What ensues is a pitched battle between the encroachment team and the denizens of the base edge.
Fukaya-san, Camp Zama's encroachment expert, pulls up in a minivan. We exchange business cards per the Japanese custom, and then after filling out some paperwork at the checkpoint we head off on a tour of the base perimeter. In the van are two more Japanese civilian employees of Camp Zama: Awada-san and Oguro-san. No one explains to me the purpose of their attendance, but I begin to feel like a visiting diplomat. After all, I am a United States citizen and my country has signed a treaty with Japan called a Status of Forces Agreement, permitting the occupation of Japanese territory in exchange for augmenting their defense forces. I am here to observe the spatial negotiations of this treaty as they are manifest at the base edge.
We pull up to the first site of encroachment, a tree with branches hanging over the fence. Is this a joke? I can see the news headline: US Military Base Overrun by Cherry Blossom Trees. But if the branches hang over onto the base property, why can the military not just lop them off? Fukaya-san explains that they must go through a process of asking the Japanese federal government, which then must ask the local municipality who then may or may not demand that the tree-owner prune his tree. This particular tree is a local violation to international treaty space, so Camp Zama's staff cannot take direct action. I look at the tree not without a bit of reverence.
We move on, one by one, to observe each example of encroachment on the base. Clotheslines, scarecrows in the form of plastic bottles spinning in the wind, and small gardens outside the fence but on military property are among the sites of treaty violation. We stop to look at a birdfeeder in the form of a halved orange, impaled on the top of the fence. Awada-san tells me that if I want a photo of it, I have to inform Oguro-san. He will take the picture with my camera. Suddenly, I am the film director of a bizarre production, with my military entourage: Fukaya-san the encroachment expert, Awada-san his chain-smoking co-producer, and Oguro-san the camera man, a can of BOSS Black coffee in hand.
These seemingly trivial moments of intersection between the military and civilian worlds are, in fact, significant. They are the beginnings, the fraying of edges which eventually lead to tears, rips, and rending of the whole. What would happen if we amplified the scarecrows and birdfeeders, the clotheslines and vegetable gardens? The military base would actually be taken over by trees and birds and gardens. Fuchu Communication Station, a nearby base returned to the Japanese Defense Force in the 1990s, is overgrown and fast decaying. If this is the future of bases, then an incipient strategy for the reclamation of military space is in action along the fences.
In preparation for such a strategy, I have documented the phenomena of the base edges across a number of installations in Japan: Yokosuka Naval Base and Atsugi Naval Air Facility in Tokyo, and Sasebo Naval Base near Nagasaki. I am also documenting here Okinawa, a small island which shoulders an unusual burden of 75% of the bases in Japan: Kadena Air Base, Camp Hansen, and Camp Schwab.
These tunnels of space are latent opportunities for larger interventions. As a collection of spaces they serve to undermine the integrity of the base edge, eroding it and lending an unfinished, temporary quality to the base. Like Gordon Matta-Clark's Fake Estatesi, the territory is difficult and sometimes impossible to occupy. Because the land is negotiated by an international treaty, it is also an impossible space to act in unless the action is illicit, or, perhaps, the terms of the treaty become sympathetic to bird-feeders and vegetable gardens.

1 In the 1970s as part of an unfinished work entitled Fake Estates, Gordon Matta-Clark bought up unwanted slivers and triangles of land in Queens and documented their edges in rich detail. Many parcels were simply inaccessible, islands of space sealed within a city block. Other fragments were so narrow that nothing could possibly be built there and travel through them was difficult. His close-up photographs of the property edges exposed a world of erosion, plant growth, and concrete fracture. Fake Estates declares that a property edge is more than a line, it is a space to be inhabited.

This essay, and project, about the very fine line between a US Military base just outside Tokyo, and the Japanese community just outside its chain link fence, was published in On Site 22:WAR.
Nick Sowers also has a very interesting blog which documents his sound projects in and around San Francisco, Soundscrapers

Nick Sowers.  'Military Estates.'  On Site review, no. 22 Fall 2009
©Nick Sowers and On Site review

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