WASHINGTON/NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. - U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter apologized Saturday after an American base worker was arrested over the death of an Okinawa woman, a case that has stoked anger among islanders already upset for decades with the heavy U.S. military presence.
Carter extended “his sincere apologies to the victim’s family and friends” during a telephone conversation with Defense Minister Gen Nakatani, according to the U.S. Defense Department.
“The United States hopes the perpetrator of this crime will be held accountable under the Japanese legal system,” Carter was quoted as telling Nakatani.
Nakatani told reporters he protested to Carter, calling the alleged murder by the former marine “inexcusable.”
Nakatani also met with Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, the top commander of U.S. military forces in Okinawa, and demanded that the U.S. forces there improve discipline and take measures to prevent similar incidents.
“This is outrageous and unforgivable,” Nakatani said during the meeting at a Defense Ministry office in Okinawa.
Nicholson said, “Our heartfelt prayers and condolences are offered to the family.”
Nakatani lodged a similar protest when he summoned Lt. Gen. John Dolan, commander of U.S. forces in Japan, in Tokyo on Thursday.
Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, a 32-year-old former marine, was arrested Thursday for allegedly abandoning the body of Rina Shimabukuro, 20. He has since admitted to sexually assaulting and killing her, according to investigative sources.
Shinzato indicated during questioning that he drove around for a few hours looking for a woman to rape, the sources said. His confession and other evidence suggest he attacked Shimabukuro near her apartment, they said.
Shinzato said he strangled and stabbed the woman before putting her body in a suitcase and transporting it in his car, according to the sources.
Coming just days ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama’s trip to Japan for the Group of Seven summit and a historic visit the atomic-bombed city of Hiroshima, the incident has sent Japanese and U.S. officials scrambling to contain the political fallout.
Nakatani attended the victim’s funeral Saturday in Nago, as did Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga and Aiko Shimajiri, a Cabinet minister in charge of Okinawa affairs and a member of the Diet from Okinawa.
Shimabukuro was office worker from Uruma. She went missing after texting her boyfriend at around 8 p.m. on April 28 to say she was going for a walk. Police later went public about her disappearance, seeking information about her whereabouts.
The police questioned Shinzato, who works at Kadena Air Base, on a voluntary basis starting Monday after they identified his car in security camera footage in the area where GPS data from the victim’s smartphone was last logged.
Based on his statements, the police found the woman’s body in a wooded area in the village of Onna on Thursday and arrested him on suspicion of dumping the body on April 28 or 29.
In New York on Friday, the suspect’s mother, 63-year-old Shirley Gadson, expressed disbelief over her son’s alleged involvement in the death. Speaking to reporters at her apartment, she said she cannot believe her son would commit such a crime.
According to Gadson and an acquaintance interviewed along with her, Shinzato was born in New York, and she raised him as a single mother. He was shy and started avoiding school when he was 11 after being bullied, they said. The acquaintance said Shinzato had never caused trouble to others or been known to be combative.
Calling him “Kenny,” Gadson said she loves her son and wants to go to Japan but cannot.
Separately, she told The Washington Post by telephone that her son served in the U.S. Marine Corps between 2007 and 2014, the newspaper reported on its website Friday.
More than 70 years after Japan’s defeat in World War II, Okinawa continues to host the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan. Coupled with the heavy U.S. military presence, crimes committed by U.S. service members and nonmilitary personnel in Okinawa have become a source of grievances.
In particular, the rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen in 1995 prompted a wave of public outrage in Okinawa.