The arrest of former U.S. Marine Kenneth Franklin Shinzato in Okinawa in connection with the murder of 20-year-old office worker Rina Shimabukuro has stirred deep anger among the prefecture’s residents. Both the Japanese and U.S. government must examine what has happened and sincerely consider how to respond in a manner that best addresses residents’ concerns.
Shimabukuro, from the city of Uruma, Okinawa Prefecture, disappeared on April 28 after she went out for a walk. Her body was found last Thursday in the village of Onna on the basis of a statement made by the 32-year-old suspect, who is now a civilian worker at the U.S. Kadena Air Base. Details of the crime that have surfaced in media reports illustrate its heinous nature. After driving around looking for someone to rape for two or three hours, Shinzato allegedly forced Shimabukuro into his car and then raped and strangled her and hit her with a club. Shinzato, who did not know the victim, is quoted as saying that he transported her body in a suitcase.
Shinzato is no longer a member of the U.S. military and committed the alleged crime while he was off duty. But given the prevalence of crimes committed by people with ties to U.S. forces in Okinawa, it would not be unreasonable if local residents link this case to the heavy U.S. military presence in the nation’s southernmost prefecture. Okinawa, which occupies a mere 0.6 percent of Japan’s territory, hosts 74 percent of the military facilities solely used by the U.S. forces in this country. U.S. military facilities occupy 18 percent of Okinawa’s main island. According to local police statistics, from the reversion of Okinawa to Japan in 1972 to the end of 2015, the prefecture saw 574 heinous crimes committed by members and civilian workers of the U.S. forces and their relatives, with 741 investigated. These crimes included 26 cases of murder, 129 cases of rape, 394 cases of burglary and 25 cases of arson.
It must be noted that the latest crime followed a sexual assault on a woman tourist by a U.S. sailor in March in a hotel in Naha and the subsequent apology by Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, the commander of the III Marine Expeditionary Force and head of U.S. Marines in Okinawa, and his promise to tighten discipline among U.S. forces members and to prevent the recurrence of a similar crime. Last year, there were three burglary cases in Okinawa involving people with ties to U.S. forces.
Under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), investigative authorities in Okinawa do not need to hand the suspect in the latest case over to the U.S. side because the crime was committed while he was off duty. Even so, a call by Okinawans to revise the SOFA may flare up due to resentment over how this heinous crime took place despite repeated apologies and promises to tighten discipline by leaders of the U.S. forces.
The agreement gives the U.S. the primary right to exercise jurisdiction over crimes committed or accidents caused by U.S. forces members or civilian workers in the performance of their official duties. As to crimes committed or accidents caused by U.S. forces civilian workers on duty, Japan and the United States have agreed to revise the operation of the SOFA — without revising it —so that Japan can criminally prosecute the suspects if the U.S. declines to do so.
Although Japan holds the right to try U.S. forces-related suspects for acts committed while they are off duty, the Japanese side in principle cannot have the U.S. military turn them over until indictment if the suspects have managed to flee to U.S. facilities and are detained by U.S. authorities. Japanese investigators have to interrogate the suspects on a voluntary basis with the cooperation of U.S. authorities.
In connection with the SOFA, both the Japanese and U.S. governments should recall the 1995 case in which a 12-year-old girl was gang raped by three American servicemen in Okinawa. U.S. authorities detained the suspects in a U.S. base but refused to turn them over to the Okinawa police on the strength of the SOFA. As local people raised their voices calling for a SOFA revision, Tokyo and Washington reached an agreement without revising SOFA under which the U.S. side will give favorable consideration to Japanese requests that it hand over suspects if they are suspected of having committed heinous crimes such as murder and rape. But the agreement does not make it mandatory that the U.S. hand over suspects and in 2002 the American forces rejected a request by Japan that it turn over a U.S. force member suspected of attempted rape.
If it is difficult for Japan to get the U.S. to immediately carry out a sizable reduction in the presence of its military forces in Okinawa, it should at a very minimum seek to revise the SOFA to rectify what Okinawan people regard as unfair elements in the treatment of crime suspects under the SOFA. This is the minimum it should do to help correct the lopsided burden Okinawans are forced to bear in matters related to the U.S. military deployment in Japan.
The latest crime may also intensify the opposition of people in Okinawa to the government’s plan to build a new U.S. military facility in the prefecture to replace the U.S. Marines Air Station Futenma. The government should realize that continuing to turn a deaf ear to the demands of Okinawan residents could not only aggravate the relationship between Okinawa and Tokyo but also could strengthen the opposition of local residents to the heavy presence of U.S. forces in the prefecture.