Another allegation of rape by American servicemen in Okinawa on Tuesday has reignited anti-U.S. protests by Okinawans and resentment throughout Japan. Okinawa Gov. Kazuhiro Nakaima called for more severe measures than in the past. Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto noted the severity of the allegation. Vice Foreign Minister Shuji Kira lodged a protest with U.S. Ambassador John Roos, who promised cooperation and renewed effort “to earn the trust of the Okinawan people and the people of Japan.”
Earning that trust will not be easy. Okinawans are already angry over the deployment of Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, citing concerns about safety. Another sexual assault case involving a U.S. serviceman and a Japanese woman in August has kept resentment and anger at a high level in Okinawa. Some newspaper reports have noted an allegation of premeditation for this attack against the woman, which, if proven, will make the situation even worse.
Okinawans may start calling for the complete removal of the United States military presence. The majority of American servicemen behave in a disciplined manner and are dedicated to the security and stability of East Asia. Unfortunately, however, sexual assault cases continue to be a problem.
Finding a reasonable solution will be difficult. For the immediate future, the U.S. military needs to institute better discipline, training and awareness about behavior when off-duty. For soldiers, tremendous discipline and focus is needed when they are working or in combat conditions, but that self-control should extend outside the base as well.
Second, the issue of prosecution and trial for crimes needs to be clarified. Under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreements, the American military reserves the primary right to try American service members. Though Ambassador Roos promised “complete and unequivocal cooperation” with the investigation of the current incident, he did not clarify exactly what steps would be taken and which system of justice would be followed.
Finally, Japan and the United States need to reconsider the conditions for the bases. It is unlikely that criminal incidents involving U.S. servicemen are going to disappear. The history of incidents has been too consistent. However, the security concerns of Japan and the United States are also unlikely to disappear. Instead, they will only increase if incidents such as the dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands continue.
Both countries need to work out ways to improve the behavior of service members and establish clear guidelines for investigations and legal procedures for criminal behavior. The decades-long policy of hosting U.S. military bases in Japan has played an important role in the region, but the persistence of serious crimes like this one threaten the stability of the long-standing security alliance between Japan and its most important ally.