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Anger over Okinawa murder grows despite Obama’s ‘deep regret’ over the incident

by Ayako Mie and Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writers

A day after U.S. President Barack Obama expressed deep regret over the slaying of an Okinawa woman linked to a U.S. former marine, anger over the incident showed no signs of abating Thursday with Okinawa lawmakers calling for withdrawal of the U.S. Marines from their prefecture.

During a joint news conference with Obama on Wednesday night following their meeting in Ise, Mie Prefecture, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe lodged a strong protest over the incident, as a grim-faced Obama vowed to take every possible measure to prevent a recurrence of base-related crimes in Japan.

The two leaders’ stoic expressions throughout the 50-minute joint news conference underlined their deep concern over the possible impact on the Japan-U.S. military alliance.

“I have lodged a firm protest with U.S. President Obama as the Japanese prime minister,” Abe said. “This case has shocked not only Okinawa but has also deeply impacted all of Japan.”

In response, Obama offered his “sincere condolences and deepest regrets.”

“The United States will continue to cooperate fully with the investigation to ensure that justice is done under the Japanese legal system,” Obama told the joint news conference.

“I want to emphasize that the United States is appalled by any violent crime that may have occurred or been carried out by any U.S. personnel or U.S. contractors.

“We consider it inexcusable. And we are committed to doing everything that we can to prevent any crimes from taking place of this sort.”

Despite the comments, the two leaders appeared reluctant to revise the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which gives the U.S. jurisdiction over U.S. military service members and civilian contractors if they violate Japanese laws while engaged in official duties.”I think it’s important to point out that the SOFA — the Status of Forces Agreement — does not in any way prevent the full prosecution and the need for justice under the Japanese legal system,” Obama said at the news conference. “And we will be fully cooperating with the Japanese legal system in prosecuting this individual and making sure that justice is served.”

The rare move by the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly on Thursday to demand the exit of the U.S. Marines came a week after Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, a former marine and current civilian worker at the Kadena Air Base, was arrested on a charge of dumping the body of 20-year-old woman Rina Shimabukuro.

The assembly also adopted a resolution addressed to the U.S. government and military and a separate statement to the Japanese government, both seeking a revision of the SOFA.

In Naha late Wednesday, Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga expressed disappointment that Abe and Obama failed to show a willingness to revise the SOFA. “It is extremely regrettable that there was no mention of amending the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement,” Onaga told reporters.

He said people in Okinawa “have been forced to bear the heavy burden of hosting the bases.”

“Unless the accord is revised, the concerns the people of Okinawa have over the bases will not be allayed,” he said.

At their news conference, Abe welcomed Obama’s planned visit to the atomic-bombed city of Hiroshima on Friday, saying it will send a powerful message in the quest for a world without nuclear weapons.

Asked if he will in turn visit Pearl Harbor, Abe demurred, saying he did not have such a plan. He instead emphasized his speech last year before the U.S. Congress, where he expressed his condolences for those killed in the Pacific War.

Abe had initially hoped to use the bilateral meeting to reaffirm the strength of the two nations’ alliance ahead of Obama’s historic visit to Hiroshima — the first for a sitting U.S. president.

However, that opportunity was overshadowed by the latest incident in Okinawa.

In a sign reminiscent of the reaction to the 1995 rape of an Okinawa schoolgirl by U.S. servicemen, the murder has prompted local residents to plan for a massive protest slated for next month, which could further fan anti-military sentiment in the prefecture.

Information from Kyodo added