TOKYO — SIX months ago, three American servicemen left their base on Okinawa and raped a Japanese schoolgirl on her way home from buying a notebook.
The act has precipitated the most far-reaching reexamination of the US military's presence in Japan in decades.
Yesterday the men found out what their personal cost would be. Navy Seaman Marcus Gill and Marine Pfc. Rodrico Harp were each sentenced to seven years in prison for their role in abducting and assaulting the girl, who has not been named. Marine Pfc. Kendrick Ledet received a 6-1/2 year sentence because judges said he stopped short of rape after seeing how young the girl was.
Michael Griffith, an American attorney representing the two Marines, said he would appeal the ruling, which was made by a panel of judges since Japan has no jury system. But Japanese lawyers who watch women's and human rights issues say the sentences were appropriate.
Even the attorney who defended Private Harp, Mitsunobu Matsunaga, yesterday called the sentences "acceptable."
"I thought the sentence was reasonable," says Mizuho Fukushima, a Tokyo lawyer active in women's issues. Lone rapists assaulting adult women in Japan are typically sentenced to two- to three-year prison terms, she says. Because the Okinawa case was a premeditated, violent assault by three men on a minor, Ms. Fukushima says that harsher sentences were justified.
Prosecutors, making similar arguments, requested 10-year terms.
Masahide Hoshi, a Tokyo lawyer who handles human rights cases, agrees that the punishment was appropriate. But he points out that in the context of the Japanese legal system, where he says rapists receive unduly light sentences, the terms handed down in Okinawa yesterday are inconsistent.
"This ruling smacks of racial discrimination and reflects political judgments," Mr. Hoshi says, adding that Japanese perpetrators of the same crime would have received four - to five-year terms.
Hoshi suggests that the race of the three men - they are black - may have prompted the heavy sentences. The men's race has not caused much debate outside the courtroom, but it is not widely known. Japanese news organizations have published or broadcast only a handful of pictures in which the race of the men can be ascertained.
The rape has provided a focal point for decades of Okinawan resentment over the inconvenience of having a foreign army in their midst and given the prefectural governor, Masahide Ota, an opportunity to rally public demands for an American withdrawal.
The US and Japan are discussing ways to ease the burden of the Americans' presence without decreasing the number of troops. That issue, and a related plan to reaffirm their security alliance, will be the dominant topics of discussion at an April summit meeting between President Clinton and Premier Ryutaro Hashimoto.
As a result, family members of the one of the convicted men argued yesterday that the judges may have been influenced by events outside the court room. "It's very political - it seems they are being used as scapegoats," Kim Cannon, Private Ledet's sister told reporters yesterday.
Fukushima also says that extra-legal factors played a role in the sentencing, but in a positive way. Women's groups rallied around to protest the rape case and "their movement helped society recognize the severity of this crime."