Police in Okinawa discovered a grisly scene of murder-suicide Saturday, a culmination of what military officials had already suspected: Navy corpsman Gabriel A. Olivero had a history of violence.
Olivero, 32 fatally stabbed an unidentified woman on the island, southwest of mainland Japan, before turning the knife on himself, Stars and Stripes reported. The slaying has inflamed decades-long relations between thousands of U.S. troops and Okinawans, many of whom resent the American presence there.
Olivero’s violence against the woman was known to U.S. military and local police officials as early as January, Marine Corps officials said, after she reported abuse to his chain of command.
The investigation remained with local police, who dropped the probe after lack of cooperation from the victim, said Lt. David Mancilla, a spokesman for Marine forces in Okinawa.
But officials still investigated the alleged sexual assault and ordered Olivero to avoid contact with the woman, Mancilla said.
The incident is among the high-profile crimes involving U.S. forces in Okinawa that have angered officials and the community for decades. Okinawans have said violence, loud aircraft and pollution while hosting about 25,000 U.S. troops are too great a burden for the island to bear.
Okinawa is a strategic linchpin that houses the largest U.S. air base in the Asia-Pacific region, and about half of all U.S. forces in Japan are based there.
Takeo Akiba, the Japanese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, asked U.S. Ambassador William Hagerty for cooperation in the investigation and expressed “extreme regrets,” the Associated Press reported.
Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki, who won his seat by opposing new construction of U.S. bases, said he was “indignant” over the slaying, and he renewed calls for Tokyo and Washington to draw down the U.S. presence there, Jiji Press reported.
Lt. Gen. Eric Smith, commander of the III Marine Expeditionary Force, asked U.S. troops to keep a muted public profile and to avoid behavior such as being loud or eating at restaurants, out of “solidarity” with locals, the AP reported.
“This is an absolute tragedy, and we are fully committed to supporting the investigation into the incident,” Mancilla said.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which declined to comment, is working with local police investigators.
In installations around the world, U.S. troops occasionally do commit crimes in foreign communities, though in 2006, Okinawan police said Americans committed less crime than locals there.
But experts say the reactions to those crimes in Okinawa have been far more sensitive and incendiary than anywhere else and have complicated relations between otherwise strong allies.
The island is culturally distinct from mainland Japan, and locals there have called for a reduction or total removal of U.S. troops since the 1995 rape of a 12-year old girl by three U.S. service members, said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
Cancian, who served as a Marine officer in Okinawa, said the island and the rest of Japan have a relationship similar to that between Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland: There are cultural ties but significant political divergences between locals and the central government. That has led to pressure directed at Tokyo over U.S. troops there.
“There are several tensions coming together when it comes to crimes committed by Americans,” Cancian said Monday.
Cynthia Enloe, a Clark University professor who has studied Okinawan women’s activist movements there, said many on the island feel both “colonized by the Japanese government and dominated by American government,” with little confidence either body has their interests in mind.
Many Okinawans "feel they have no say in U.S. and Japanese relations,” she said.
Enloe said she was not aware of more-recent data on crime involving U.S. troops there, but said concerns and fears over safety are driven by the constant military presence. Crime data, she said, “is not a real reflection of insecurity.”
Women in Okinawa have been in contact with other women in Guam and the Philippines on how to best navigate protests and activism, she added, and they have been mindful about offloading their concerns onto other communities as U.S. officials relocate troops off Okinawa.
In 2006, the U.S. and Japanese governments agreed to divert thousands of American troops from a base in the south of the long, narrow island that has become the focal point of tensions. The base was built in rural fields decades ago, Cancian said, but development has flooded the area. U.S. aircraft roar over apartments and businesses, sending locals into a fury.
Japan agreed to spend billions to help relocate troops and family members to Guam, Hawaii and the continental United States, Cancian said.
That decision was driven by local resentment and protests rather than strategic interests, Cancian said, but now defense officials can point to aggressive Chinese expansion as a reason to move U.S. forces farther from the range of adversarial warships and weapons.
Calls for reductions of U.S. troops have been constant since the 1995 rape and other crimes, including a spate of drunken-driving collisions that have killed civilians and led to alcohol bans at U.S. bases.
In 2017, an Okinawa court sentenced contractor and former Marine Kenneth Gadson to life in prison for the rape and murder of Rina Shimabukuro in Uruma. That incident was referenced by Tamaki in a fiery letter to Smith, Stars and Stripes reported.
“The Uruma incident is still fresh in our memory and then this incident happens,” Tamaki said. “I don’t see any disciplinary systems working properly.”
Cancian said Saturday’s killing probably wouldn’t tip over U.S.-Japan relations on its own. Incidents like this are rare, he said, but have occurred often enough since the 1990s that a playbook for defense officials has emerged.
“There will be a lockdown of U.S. troops and a general will express regret,” Cancian said. “And then everyone will march on.”