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Alleged Okinawa murder threatens to reignite Futenma base issue

by

Staff Writer

Thursday’s arrest of a 32-year-old U.S. man for the alleged murder of a young Okinawan woman has reignited anger locally and threatens repercussions at an international level.

The incident threatens to become a diplomatic problem for the U.S. and Japan just a week before U.S. President Barack Obama visits for the G-7 Ise-Shima summit and makes a historic trip to Hiroshima.

While in Japan, Obama is expected to tout the strength of the postwar U.S.-Japan alliance. But now there are fears in Tokyo and Washington that the incident will lead to mass demonstrations in Okinawa against the U.S. military of the kind last seen in 1995, when three troops gang-raped a 12-year-old girl. Those protests rattled the military alliance.

“This inhumane incident is a huge shock for the Okinawan people, who are already living side by side with the bases. Every time an incident or accident involving U.S. militarypersonnel occurs, the prefecture calls for stricter enforcement measures and thorough education of American soldiers to prevent it from happening again,” Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga said late Thursday night after returning from a trip to the U.S.

Many Okinawans have already stepped up calls to eject U.S. forces from Okinawa Prefecture, which hosts several U.S. military bases and is regarded as a cornerstone of Obama’s policy of rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region. On Thursday, Okinawan police arrested civilian base worker Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, who reportedly admitted to dumping the body of Rina Shimabukuro, 20, in Onna in Okinawa.

Japanese and U.S. officials quickly went into full damage control mode Thursday and Friday, underlining their concern over the possible impact on Japan-U.S. military ties.

Right after the police started a news conference in Okinawa late Thursday night, U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy visited Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida at around 10:45 p.m. in Tokyo.

During the hastily arranged meeting, Kishida filed a formal protest and conveyed his “regret” over the crime to Kennedy. Kennedy pledged to redouble U.S. efforts to “make sure this will never happen again,” The Associated Press reported.

Shortly before midnight, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani met with Lt. Gen. John Dolan, commander of U.S. Forces Japan, in Tokyo to express outrage.

In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest promised full cooperation with Japan over the investigation. Earnest and State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters in separate briefings that the U.S. was treating the situation with the utmost seriousness.

Meanwhile, there are concerns among national and Okinawan Liberal Democratic Party members that opponents of the bilateral plan to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma further north to Henoko will now have the upper hand. But continued opposition to the base for nearly two decades has prevented its completion.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has strongly pushed for the long-delayed project, calling it an important step in strengthening the Japan-U.S. military alliance and maintaining U.S. forces in Okinawa.

The prefecture has jurisdiction over the Senkaku islets in the East China Sea, which are claimed by China and Taiwan and regarded as a potential military flash point between Tokyo and Beijing.

Hiroshi Ashitomi, a Nago-based activist who opposes the Henoko relocation plan, said anger toward the U.S. military is likely to grow over the weekend and early next week. He also said expressions of regret by U.S. and Japanese leaders and promises to make sure such crimes do not happen again will not be enough, especially if the two governments continue to push the Henoko plan.

“Even in Okinawa, people who support Abe want the Futenma base closed within five years, as he promised. But if the government continues to try to promote the Henoko plan now, opposition will just become stronger,” Ashitomi said.

It is also expected to affect next month’s Okinawa Prefectural Assembly elections, and possibly the political fortunes of a Cabinet member who is in charge of Okinawa issues.