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TOKYO, Feb 19 2008 (IPS) - While the Japanese government will formally complain to United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about the alleged rape of a 14-year-old junior high school girl by a U.S. marine on the southern Okinawa island, public reaction to the incident has been muted.
Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said on Monday that he would be taking up violations by U.S. military personnel stationed in the country, when Rice comes visiting next week. Rice is also due to travel to China and South Korea, where she will attend the inauguration of President-elect Lee Myung-Bak.
Police in Okinawa have taken into custody Tyrone Luther Hadnott, 38, for the alleged rape of the schoolgirl on Feb.10, but charges are yet to be framed against the U.S. marine staff sergeant. He has denied raping the girl, but admitted to climbing on top of her and kissing her in his car.
Public reaction to the incident has been muted, when compared to a similar rape case in the country 13 years ago, but analysts say this has to do with the changing security environment in the region.
“Several factors contributed to the powder keg of emotions in the previous case,” Weston Konishi, Hitachi international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Japan explained to IPS. “There were widespread doubts about the rationale for U.S. bases in Japan to begin with; the Japanese had a much lower sense of insecurity about potential concerns like North Korea and China. Now, however, the Japanese have a more realistic sense of their environment being more threatened and are somewhat more at peace with the necessity of maintaining some level of U.S. force presence in Japan.”
At that time, the rape of a 12-year-old Okinawa girl by three U.S. marines sparked a fiery rally, attended by some 85,000 people, denouncing the huge U.S. military presence in Japan. It was the largest and most emotionally charged demonstration since the island in Japan’s far south was returned by the U.S. to Japan in 1972. Even in Tokyo several rallies were held by political organisations and citizens groups in support of the Okinawans.
But in recent years Okinawa’s residents have started voicing strong opposition to the U.S. bases because of the potential for accidents, troop-related crime and disputes over land. Last year, 46 military personnel were arrested in Okinawa for various crimes.
“Recent bilateral agreements have tried to reduce the ‘footprint’ of U.S. bases on Okinawa and other local communities across Japan,” Konishi said. “This has had some effect in reducing tensions between U.S. military facilities and host communities, although tensions remain.”
There have also been procedural improvements in the way both sides respond to a crisis like this one. In the past, the U.S. was reluctant to turn over suspects to Japanese authorities under the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), according to Konishi. But in the aftermath of the 1995 rape incident, the U.S. has been more forthcoming in handing over suspects in special circumstances. In this case, the suspect was arrested by Japanese police to begin with, rather than being detained by U.S. authorities first.
“This incident still has the potential to spark widespread public outrage, not just in Okinawa but in other areas of Japan, such as Iwakuni, where there is a U.S. military presence,” Konishi said. “This could present a serious setback for bilateral plans to implement a realignment of U.S. bases in Japan.”
While Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima did not think the alleged rape would directly affect the relocation plans, he was angry. “This is a serious criminal act that tramples upon the human rights of a woman. In particular, given that the victim is a junior high school student, I can never forgive his act.” Robert Neff, a longtime resident of Japan and the former Tokyo bureau chief of ‘Business Week,’ also talked with IPS about the low-key response this time around. “The last one was much more egregious, because the girl was 12 years old and raped by three African-Americans. Even though it was horrible; it makes the current one less newsworthy. The mood in Okinawa is not as hostile as it used to be, because there is a move underway to move U.S. troops to Guam.”
Some 8,000 marines are to be dispatched to Guam over the next six years. They will be supported by Trident submarines, a ballistic missile task force, F-22 fighter jets, aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered attack submarines and stealth bombers.
With such high stakes, the U.S. is doing all it can to stop the rape incident from spinning out of control. Thomas Schieffer, U.S. Ambassador to Japan, flew to Okinawa on Thursday and promised to provide educational programmes for U.S. military personnel in this country.
He bowed and personally expressed his condolences to the victim. “Every American in Japan today, whether military or civilian, wants the little girl and her family to know that we are thinking of her and hoping that she will soon recover from this traumatic experience. Our prayers are with her.”
Koichi Nakano, an associate professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo, said: “The Okinawans no doubt feel once again let down by both governments. Everyone recalls the uproar caused by a similar sexual assault of a minor in the mid-1990s, and is reminded nothing has changed since. The fact remains that Okinawa shoulders a disproportionate share of the “burden” of the U.S.-Japan alliance, in terms of the presence of the military bases, and in terms of the “troubles” that are caused by the marines. The Okinawans want them out.’’
The Okinawa prefecture assembly unanimously adopted a resolution Thursday protesting the alleged rape. Lawmakers wanted the U.S. to apologise and pay damages to the victim, as well as “take preventive step in a way that can be clearly seen by the people of Okinawa”.
In October, last year, the son of a U.S. Air Force officer was arrested on suspicion of raping and injuring a female employee at a restaurant in Okinawa. Last month, two marines were arrested for allegedly beating a taxi driver and walked out without paying the fare.
The U.S. military has tried to enforce strict official discipline and take steps to prevent crimes and there is a proposed relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenman in the city of Ginowan to a new facility in Nago, a less crowded part of Okinawa.
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