Arrests of US sailors in Okinawa reignites opposition to bases

The arrests in Okinawa of two US sailors on suspicion of raping a local woman are adding to longstanding frustrations by local Japanese with the US military presence there. 

Kyodo News/AP
US Ambassador to Japan John Roos speaks to journalists after meeting with Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Shuji Kira, unseen, at the foreign ministry in Tokyo Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012. Okinawan police arrested two US sailors on Tuesday for the alleged rape of a woman.

The arrest of two American sailors on suspicion of raping a woman in Okinawa has reignited tensions over the US military’s longstanding presence on the southern Japanese island.

Japanese police are questioning the suspects, named as Seaman Christopher Browning and Petty Officer 3rd Class Skyler Dozierwalker, both 23, who were arrested after allegedly raping the unnamed woman as she walked home in the early hours of Tuesday. Mr. Dozierwalker has reportedly admitted to committing the crime, Japanese media said.

Japan’s Defense minister, Satoshi Morimoto, called the alleged rape an “extremely egregious and vile incident,” and attributed it to a “failure on how the US military trains its personnel.”

John Roos, the US ambassador to Japan, said: "The United States Government is extremely concerned by recent allegations of misconduct by two individual United States service members.

"We are committed to cooperating fully with the Japanese authorities in their investigation. These allegations, given their seriousness, will continue to command my full personal attention."

Osprey controversy 

The arrests come amid growing resentment toward the US military following the controversial deployment of Osprey transport aircraft in Okinawa earlier this month. The aircraft, which use tilt rotors to take off and land vertically, and cruise like a conventional airplane, have been involved in a series of accidents that local residents say makes them too dangerous to fly in built-up areas.

Noise pollution, crimes committed by servicemen, and the constant threat of accidents involving military aircraft are common themes running though local opposition to US bases.

Although it accounts for just 1 percent of Japan’s total land area, Okinawa hosts about 74 percent of US bases and more than half of its 47,000 troops in Japan.

Public broadcaster NHK said seven US servicemen have been arrested in connection with rapes since Okinawa reverted to Japanese control in 1972. The most notorious was the 1995 abduction and rape of a 12-year-old girl by three US servicemen. That case prompted mass demonstrations and forced Washington to agree to gradually reduce its military footprint on the island.

But local campaigners say official crime figures underplay the true extent of violence toward women by US servicemen.

Activists: 139 attacks over 40 years

The organization Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence has documented 139 reported incidents of violence against Okinawan women by members of the US military over the past 40 years, including rape, murder, sexual assault, and common assault.

“I am so angry that this has happened yet again,” says Miyoko Ashimine, the member of a local women’s rights group who advises female victims of sexual crime.

“The first step should be to impose an immediate curfew on all US military personnel, but the only real solution is the removal of all US bases from Okinawa prefecture. As long as they remain here, these crimes will continue.

“Women can’t walk the streets in safety, and we now have the arrival of the Ospreys to contend with. I want Japan and the US to sit down and start doing something for the people of Okinawa. The US says it takes these matters seriously, but then does nothing about them.”

Demonstrations planned for this weekend follow protests against the arrival of 12 Osprey MV-22 aircraft at Futenma, a Marine Corps base located in the middle of the densely populated city of Ginowan. The US eventually plans to deploy 24 of the aircraft to Futenma.

The US says the new transport aircraft is needed to replace existing CH-46 transport helicopters and to improve its ability to respond to security crises in the Asia-Pacific region, amid growing concern over China's military buildup.

Recent tensions between Japan and China over the Senkaku islands have underlined the US’s role in acting as a deterrent against Chinese naval aggression, according Jun Okumura, a counselor with the political risk and consulting firm Eurasia Group.

Okumura predicts there will be a “significant backlash” against the US military, but that it will not be enough to jeopardize the Osprey deployment.

“One thing that has changed is the increased Chinese naval presence in the neighborhood of southern Okinawa prefecture,” he says. “Even the governor of Okinawa has recently expressed an understanding of the need for the US military presence.

“This is a bad case, of course, and there is no such thing as a matter of degree where rape is concerned, but even though there will be a backlash, I don’t see this as affecting the future of the Osprey deployment.”

Another curfew?

A women’s rights group in Okinawa demanded Thursday that restrictions be imposed immediately on the off-base movements of US personnel. After a similar case in 2008, local military authorities imposed a 24-hour, indefinite curfew on 45,000 military personnel and their families, including the 10,000 who live off base.

As much as US and Japanese officials attempt to treat the arrests and the Ospreys’ arrival as separate issues, for many Okinawans, they both represent the disproportionate military burden the island has had to shoulder since the end of the war.

That view is evident in an Okinawa prefectural assembly resolution, to be adopted next week, part of which reads: “The incident occurred around the same time that the US military deployed Osprey transport aircraft, despite [local] opposition. Residents of the prefecture have begun to call for the complete removal of US bases."

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