Okinawans, Weary of Marines, Glare at Both US and Tokyo

Article excerpt

A SOLITARY crime is gradually provoking the most serious reexamination of the US-Japan security alliance in decades.

Ever since three American servicemen based on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa were named last month as suspects in the rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl, many Japanese have demanded change in the arrangement.

Some merely want a treaty modified so that Japanese police can investigate crimes involving American military personnel more easily. Others want the US military presence in Japan - particularly in Okinawa, where two-thirds of the approximately 45,000 American troops are based - curtailed. Still others want the Americans to leave altogether.

When President Clinton comes here next month for meetings with Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, the two leaders will likely issue a joint statement on the US-Japan security relationship.

But comments by officials in Tokyo and Washington suggest the two leaders won't announce any significant reductions in the deployment of US forces here or in the land area they occupy.

US officials have defended the security arrangement, calling it the bedrock of America's "most important" bilateral relationship. Furthermore, Washington does not want a controversy in Japan to inspire calls for similar changes in other countries, where US troops are based.

The furor over the rape has brought to the surface a number of Japanese concerns over the security arrangement. The concerns are all, in one way or another, about equity: the balance of rights, the balance of burdens, and the balance of forces.

Rights are the most immediate issue. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), part of the mutual security treaty that the US and Japan signed in 1960, is intended to protect the rights of US service personnel stationed in Japan.

One provision specifies that if US authorities apprehend US personnel suspected of committing a crime in Japan, then the suspects must remain in US hands until they are formally charged by the Japanese. Japanese critics say this rule inhibits investigations, betrays a lack of confidence in Japan's legal system, and symbolizes an occupation-force mentality on the part of the Americans.

In the aftermath of the rape, figures such as Mr. Clinton and the commander of US forces in Japan have apologized for the pain the incident caused, even as the suspects remained on a US base.

US officials are now negotiating with Japanese counterparts to smooth what they describe as problems in the "implementation" of the SOFA, all the while insisting that the document itself should remain untouched.

Okinawans are the most upset about the rape, but that is not just because the incident took place there. They feel that the burden of hosting US forces is unfairly placed on them.

Historically, Okinawans consider themselves distinct from people who inhabit the main Japanese islands; their territory was forcefully incorporated into the Japanese empire in the latter part of the 19th century. In World War II, the Japanese military fought a terrible battle against Allied forces on the island, resulting in the deaths of as much as a quarter of the local population. …