A 19-year-old U.S. Marine who woke up from a drunken binge a week ago in the bed of a 14-year-old Okinawan girl and in the hands of local police has set off an international incident in advance of a conference of world leaders there next week.
The U.S. ambassador to Japan expressed his "profound regret" about the incident today, and American military officials slapped a new curfew and strict drinking regulations on all 26,000 U.S. troops stationed in Okinawa. The moves are an attempt to stanch the political damage from the Marine's arrest on suspicion of child molestation and from a hit-and-run accident Sunday involving an Air Force sergeant.
For Japan and the United States, the trouble could not have come at a worse time. Both governments were hoping that Okinawans' long-simmering opposition to the U.S. military bases there would not boil over during the Group of Eight summit conference July 21 to 23.
That hope is lost. Opponents of the bases have seized on the incidents and plan a rally Saturday. Japanese officials--from Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori on down--have issued condemnations, and U.S. officials are bowing with apologies.
Ambassador Thomas S. Foley visited Japanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono today "to tell you the steps we have taken so this won't happen again." Starting tonight, troops were to be restricted to base or to their off-base homes after midnight and are barred from drinking during the curfew hours, military officials said. Marines will be effectively restricted to base during the summit.
While protesting the incident, Japanese politicians tried not to sour the atmosphere for the summit and President Clinton's visit to Okinawa, Japan's southernmost prefecture.
On Friday, Mori called the Marine's conduct "outrageous. . . . It's no excuse to say [he] was young."
But Kono was more moderate today, saying the curfew and drinking ban are "an indication that the military takes these cases seriously and is taking preventative measures."
The Marine has not yet been charged. Because he is a teenager, a juvenile under Japanese law, his name has not been released. Local police said the Marine stumbled drunk into an unlocked home in Okinawa City on July 3 and into the girl's bed.
The girl's mother heard her daughter screaming, rescued her from the bed and called police, who found the Marine asleep and arrested him, according to local reports.
On Sunday, Air Force Sgt. Johnny S. Miller, 21, was charged with running a red light and fleeing the scene after hitting a pedestrian, who suffered minor injuries. What would be routine criminal cases in most places are magnified in Okinawa, where the presence of so many American troops 55 years after World War II raises mixed emotions.
Those passions flared when three servicemen were convicted in 1996 of raping a 12-year-old girl a year earlier. They have emerged again with a proposal to relocate Futenma Marine Corps Air Station from Ginowan City to the northeast coast of the island, instead of closing it or moving it elsewhere in Japan.
"As long as the bases are here, such incidents will happen," said Yoshikazu Nakasone, a leader of the Okinawa Peace Action Center, which is organizing Saturday's rally. "The only way to solve it is to say we don't want the bases here."
On the island's manicured military bases, U.S. troops were smarting under the curfew and the cloud over what had been slowly improving relations between the U.S. military and local citizens.
"I guess it's good if it helps to keep our noses clean," a 20-year-old Marine lance corporal said today.
Since the 1995 rape, the U.S. military has made a concerted effort to improve relations with the community and curb misbehavior by its troops, especially Marine Corps soldiers, who are predominantly young and single. Many of the 16,000 Marines come to Okinawa without family for short six- or 12-month tours.
Military officials privately protest that the crime rate among service members is lower than that of the general public. A 1999 report from the Okinawa Prefectural Police showed that crimes by U.S. military personnel on Okinawa had dropped 77.8 percent during a 10-year period.
And while the presence of foreign troops is an irritant to many Okinawans, the bases also are a mainstay of the economy. So public reaction to the Marine's arrest last week came slowly among local residents, who have mixed feelings about the Americans and their dependents.
"I think there's a little bit of overreaction with these incidents," said Roy Ginoza, 28, who works in a clothing store in Okinawa City, just outside Kadena Air Base.
But for Okinawan officials, who are eager for the summit to cast a favorable light on their tourist island, the incident is a blow.
"This should never happen," Seiichi Oyakawa, a top official in the Okinawan governorate, said today. "But the summit must be a success. We think these cases should not have an impact on the summit."
Jan Wesner Childs in Okinawa and Shigehiko Togo in Tokyo contributed to this report.