Okinawa residents are furious about an incident in which a civilian U.S. base worker allegedly abandoned the body of a local woman. Residents cannot help but ask why heinous crimes involving U.S. military personnel have been repeated in the prefecture.
The 20-year-old victim reportedly had a boyfriend she intended to marry. The crime is a cruel act that deprived the young woman of a bright future. The suspect was quoted as also suggesting that he murdered the woman.
The Japanese government lodged a strong protest with the U.S. government and urged Washington to tighten discipline among U.S. forces in Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has told reporters, "I have a feeling of very strong anger." First and foremost, it is necessary to get to the bottom of the incident and clarify the motives behind the alleged crime.
A total of 74 percent of facilities in Japan that are being used exclusively by U.S. forces are concentrated in Okinawa Prefecture, which accounts for only 0.6 percent of Japan's total land area. U.S. military facilities occupy 10 percent of Okinawa's total land mass. The ratio has declined less than 1 percentage point since Tokyo and Washington agreed on a plan to reduce and integrate U.S. bases in Japan's southernmost sub-tropical prefecture 20 years ago.
A sexual assault by three U.S. servicemen on a young girl in Okinawa in 1995 sparked an anti-U.S. base campaign among prefectural residents, and shook up the Japan-U.S. alliance. However, such heinous crimes involving U.S. servicemen in Okinawa have not been eliminated despite U.S. forces having pledged to take measures to prevent a recurrence and tighten discipline. Last year alone, three violent robbery cases involving U.S. military personnel occurred in Okinawa Prefecture.
The excessive burden of U.S. bases and repeated crimes involving U.S. forces personnel have weighed heavily on Okinawa residents and contributed to a sense of unfairness among local people.
Tokyo should convince Washington of how furious and worried Okinawa residents are about the situation. The Abe government should then step up efforts to lessen the burden of U.S. bases on Okinawa.
The executive branch and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are worried that the latest incident could adversely affect the project of relocating the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa Prefecture prior to the June Okinawa Prefectural Assembly election and summer House of Councillors election. However, the government cannot dispel Okinawa residents' anger at the situation unless it shows enthusiasm about fundamentally resolving the base issue.
Measures that U.S. forces implement to tighten discipline among its personnel would only amplify Okinawa residents' anti-base sentiment unless they are effective. The Okinawa Prefectural Assembly as well as local residents are demanding that the Japanese and U.S. governments take effective measures to prevent a recurrence and revise the bilateral status-of-forces agreement that provides for ways to deal with accidents and crimes involving U.S. servicemen and civilian employees of U.S. bases in the prefecture.
Since Japan arrested the suspect in the latest incident over a crime irrelevant to his official duty, Japan faces no obstacle to prosecuting him. However, if the U.S. had detained him, U.S. forces would have no obligation to hand him over to Japan before he is indicted. There are examples of U.S. forces having refused to hand over U.S. military personnel involved in crimes to Japan.
Labor unions and bar associations have demanded that status-of-forces provisions on criminal jurisdiction be revised on the grounds that such a measure would be effective in deterring crimes by U.S. military personnel in Japan. Debate should be held on such amendments from the viewpoint of deterring crimes.
Japan-U.S. summit talks are expected to be held in Japan on the sidelines of the Group of Seven summit in the Ise-Shima district of Mie Prefecture next week. It will be a good opportunity for the leaders of both countries to exchange views on the U.S. base issue, such as a reduction and integration of U.S. bases and measures to prevent crimes by U.S. military personnel in Japan.
On the occasion of the Kyushu-Okinawa summit in 2000, then U.S. President Bill Clinton pledged that the United States would fulfill its responsibility as a good neighbor. Unfortunately, however, his words now sound empty.