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YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — U.S. commanders in Japan have been scrambling to curtail alcohol-fueled military misconduct since the alleged rape of an Okinawa woman by two American sailors in October and a rash of other off-base misconduct incidents that followed.
Curfews, liberty restrictions and buddy systems were imposed. Lt. Gen. Sam Angelella, U.S. Forces Japan commander, even went so far as to head up an ad hoc late-night “courtesy” patrol of bar row near Yokota Air Base.
But truly solving the military’s recurring alcohol abuse problems in the Pacific is unlikely, experts say.
That’s because military officials are dealing with an entrenched culture of alcohol use that’s unique to the region. Research has found that military personnel stationed in Korea and Japan are significantly more likely to be heavy drinkers than troops in other parts of the world. GIs here are apt to drink more, feel the need to do so to fit in and believe booze is the only entertainment at hand.
That’s not to say alcohol abuse isn’t a problem throughout the military. An extensive study released by the Institute of Medicine in September found that heavy alcohol use — defined as five or more drinks in one occasion at least once per week — by active military members increased steadily from 1998 to 2008, the latest year figures were available for the study.
The drinking culture facing troops stationed in Japan and South Korea, however, is distinctive for a number of reasons.
Troops arriving in the two countries are greeted by deep indigenous cultures of drinking.
Comparative studies in the 1990s found that South Korea had the highest global rates of alcohol abuse and dependence. The top-selling spirit in the world is Korean soju. It’s high in alcohol and cheaper than bottled water, at the equivalent of $1.10 for three-quarters of a pint.
Meanwhile, some studies have found that Japan has a higher prevalence of alcohol use and problems than the United States. As in South Korea, the social pressure to drink can be intense, particularly as it relates to work. On any given night, the country’s throngs of corporate “salarymen” stagger on streets and subways after booze-fueled dinners that are considered part of the job.
While many American bars, under pressure by groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, have eliminated happy hours featuring all-you-can-drink and two-for-one offers, such deals are common in Japan.
The U.S. Department of Defense keeps alcohol plentiful and cheap on Asian bases, too. For example, a shoppette at Yokota Air Base was recently selling a 30-pack of Miller Lite beer for $12.99. By comparison, a six-pack of Budweiser would have cost the equivalent of about $15 at a nearby off-base Japanese supermarket.
Shoppettes also stock the super-cheap Military Special brand of spirits. A 1-liter bottle of Military Special tequila costs about $10 at Yokota’s shops.
Into this boozy stew arrives a certain mix of young soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors.
Military personnel in Asia are “more likely to be characterized as young, single, male and with lower educational status,” which are “all characteristics of higher-risk drinking,” according to “Regional Differences in Alcohol Use among U.S. Military Personnel,” a 2005 study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol.
“I think an important thing to remember is that the military is constantly recruiting young men and women who have a desire to serve their country, but they also have a spirit of adventure. They like excitement,” said a substance-abuse treatment specialist working for the military in Japan, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
“In the enlisted ranks, most recruits are high school graduates,” the treatment specialist said. “In the demographic that I’m talking about, there’s a pretty significant incidence of alcohol abuse and also some drug abuse.”
Capt. Dorcia Tucker, the program manager of Yokota’s substance abuse treatment program, said she counseled about 75 airmen for alcohol problems in the past year. Almost all of them had been referred by commanders or medical personnel, primarily as a result of getting caught for driving while intoxicated, underage drinking or being drunk and disorderly.
The treatment specialist said young Marines arriving in Okinawa find themselves far more restricted than in the United States. That can leave them with few diversions other than drinking on base or go-for-broke benders during limited stints outside the gates.
“You can’t go off base without a liberty buddy, and before these incidents, there were curfews already going on,” the treatment specialist said. “The curfew moved up and down, but there’s always been some kind of curfew. You’re not allowed to drive. There are some who can drive, but the vast majority cannot.
“If you were in the States — at the same rank, same age, assigned to Camp Pendleton — you’d have so much more freedom of movement. Whether you lived on base or lived in town, odds are you’d have a car. You’d be able to go out. The American culture is right out the front gate. Here, it’s a different culture. We’re so concerned that any incident whatsoever is very dangerous to the host-country relations.”
The 2005 study on regional drinking patterns found that personnel stationed in Asia were more likely “to perceive a strong connection between their installation’s culture and drinking” and reported drinking more at the present time than before entering the military. Compared with the U.S., Europe and Hawaii, “military norms were more favorable toward drinking in Asia,” the study found.
The lead author of the study, Dr. Robert Bray, declined to be interviewed about the findings, saying in an email message that the Pentagon had asked the researchers to direct all questions to Washington. Bray also sat on the committee that prepared the Institute of Medicine study on military drinking released this fall.
Personnel in Asia were more likely to have friends who drank, thought it was hard to fit in if they didn’t drink, believed that drinking was encouraged at installation parties and considered drinking to be the only recreation at their installation.
The findings suggest that “the military culture in Asia has become more accepting of heavy alcohol use and may tolerate and even encourage it. It is also possible that over time, the military culture may have moved toward the Asian regional culture, suggesting that both contribute to our findings.”
The services in Asia do make efforts to engage troops in alcohol-free activities, particularly for single servicemembers.
Each week, 70 to 130 new soldiers arrive at Camp Humphreys in South Korea, according to Spc. Kareen Medeiros, a coordinator and president for the camp’s Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers program.
Even before inprocessing is completed, the BOSS program tries to get soldiers involved in off-base trips and volunteer work.
“They’re in a new continent so they’re looking for direction,” Medeiros said, adding that “none of the trips or projects that we offer have anything to do with alcohol.”
The Marine Corps runs the similar Single Marine Program, sponsors intramural sports and provides educational opportunities and extensive library services as a means of keeping troops healthily engaged, the treatment specialist said. “There’s big effort to provide activities and programs.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Seth Robson contributed to this report.