THE three men who may be responsible for a public rage that could force changes in the US-Japan security alliance, are oddly faceless.
The two US marines and the Navy seaman accused of abducting and raping a 12-year-old Okinawan girl on Sept. 4 are familiar to many Japanese, but by occupation only.
Photographs of the suspects' faces have been virtually absent from Japan's media.
News organizations here say they have not published or broadcast the photographs because they have been impossible to obtain. Some observers, however, detect a reluctance to pursue such pictures because the suspects are black.
''I think it must be self-censorship,'' says an editorial writer at a major Japanese newspaper who spoke on condition of anonymity. ''It's very curious. We know that the race issue is so sensitive in the US so maybe the papers are reluctant to touch that.''
News executives may be concerned that public anger over the rape would be further inflamed and take on racist overtones if the race of the suspects were widely publicized, according to this journalist and other media-watchers. In Japan such industry cohesion is sometimes the result of government ''guidance,'' although government officials and media spokesmen deny such intervention in this instance.
The rape has caused an uproar in Okinawa, a small island prefecture that hosts 29,000 of the 45,000 US troops in Japan, and spurred calls to review the 1960 security treaty between the two countries. The alliance provides the US with key military outposts in the Pacific and Japan with guarantees of US protection.
Yesterday US and Japanese negotiators reached an agreement that may satisfy some of Okinawans concerns. Residents are frustrated, among other things, by regulations that allow the US military to maintain custody of American suspects until formal charges are filed by Japanese authorities. (The three suspects in Okinawa were detained by US military authorities Sept. 7, but not handed over to Japanese police until Sept. 30.) Under yesterday's agreement, US officials will give ''sympathetic consideration'' to Japanese requests for pre-indictment custody ''in specific cases...,'' according to a US Embassy statement.
Japan's newspapers and TV shows in recent years have increasingly shown the faces of those accused of crimes, especially in noteworthy cases. The editorial writer says that until now there has been sufficient public interest to warrant using photographs. ''It's natural in a case that is so brutal.''
But in the Okinawa case only marginal media outlets - a daytime variety show and an evening tabloid - have published photos of the accused that clearly show their race.
A US military public-affairs officer, speaking from the US military's Japan headquarters at Yokota, says he cannot disclose the suspects' races out of respect for their privacy. Okinawan police described the three as blacks during a briefing on Sept. 8.
It needs to be emphasized that race appears to have no bearing on this crime. Accordingly, few media organizations in the US or Japan have mentioned race in the stories they have published or broadcast about the incident.
The suspects are Navy Seaman Marcus Gill of Woodville, Texas; Marine Pfc. Rodrico Harp of Griffin, Ga., and Marine Pfc. Kendrick Ledet of Waycross, Ga. Their trial begins Nov. 7, an event that may provide an opportunity to photograph the men.
A member of Japan's parliament says privately that last weekend's demonstrations over the incident - which included the largest protest against the US military in Japan in at least a quarter century - would have been much larger if the race of the men were widely known. If the assailants had been Asian-American, he continues, the protests would have been smaller.
An Okinawan police official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, says he believes publication of the men's photos would cause further controversy and trigger a racist backlash.
Many Japanese reject this view. ''A rapist is a rapist, regardless of race,'' says Naomi Tajima, a member of the Tokyo Rape Crisis Center. Others argue that Japanese don't make distinctions among varieties of non-Japanese people.
In an informal survey of Japan's three largest newspapers, five major private TV networks, and one of the two main newspapers in Okinawa, most of the organizations said they simply could not get pictures of the men. ''Mainichi hasn't been able to obtain photos,'' says Yoshihiko Takao, spokesman for the Mainichi Shimbun, Japan's third-largest newspaper.
Others said the fact that the men were in custody made it unnecessary to run pictures.
Air Force Maj. Kevin Krejcarek, deputy director of public affairs for US Forces Japan, says the military doesn't maintain photos of service personnel, except of some senior officers.
Even so, photographs haven't been impossible to obtain. One media company, the Tokyo-based Fuji Sankei Group, has publicized the pictures. The group's Evening Fuji tabloid put color portraits of Private Harp and Private Ledet on the front page of its Oct. 7 edition under the headline ''US Military Ogres.'' The photographs were portraits of the men in their Marine uniforms and appeared to have come from the suspects' friends or family in the US. The pictures also appeared on the group's daytime variety TV show.
In the US, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution published a 1991 yearbook picture of Harp Oct. 15 and the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman published pictures of all three suspects Oct. 13.
Hiroshi Ishikawa, project manager at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, says media organizations don't publish photos of suspects in crimes that are considered minor, as rape sometimes is in Japan. He adds that the media sometimes refrain from using pictures when the suspects are young and when editors and producers feel that publication would limit suspects' ability to rejoin society. In the matter at hand, he says, ''My guess is self-censorship.''