U.S. envoy promises support in Okinawa rape case

Alleged assault of woman by two servicemen on Okinawa adds to the rising tide of anger against American military presence on island

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 October, 2012, 3:30am

The US envoy to Japan has vowed "complete and unequivocal co-operation" over the alleged rape of a local woman by two servicemen on an island fed up with American military presence.

Ambassador John Roos sought swiftly to reassure people on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa that he shared their anger over an incident that has the potential to act as a lightning rod for growing anti-American feeling.

Roos said the US government and military would "provide full co-operation to the Japanese authorities in their investigation".

After a meeting Vice-Foreign Minister Shuji Kira, who is standing in while Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba is in Europe, Roos said: "I understand the anger many people feel with respect to this reported incident."

He wanted the Japanese people to know that he shared that anger.

"Not only me as a United States' ambassador, but the entire United States' government including our military will continue to work our hearts out to earn the trust of the Okinawan people and the people of Japan," he said.

Okinawa governor Hirokazu Nakaima, a critic of the vast US presence on the island, met Defence Minister Satoshi Morimoto and expressed his fury, describing the alleged crime as "insane".

Citing another case of sexual offence allegedly by a US soldier in August, the governor said: "This is nothing but abhorrent. We cannot accept this, no matter how much [the US military presence] is claimed to be necessary for national security."

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda also chimed in, saying the alleged crime was "intolerable".

The arrest of the two men on Tuesday is a potential flashpoint in relations between the US military and their reluctant Okinawan hosts.

Previous criminal incidents have sparked angry, large-scale demonstrations, with participants demanding a trimming of the US footprint. About half the 47,000 military personnel Washington has in Japan are based in Okinawa.

Relations at the moment are especially prickly, with locals resentful of the deployment of 12 tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft.

Ostensibly, the objections centre on the Osprey's perceived poor safety record, but commentators say it is a proxy issue for islanders fed up with what they see as an unequal burden. They call for mainland Japan to step up and take its share.

Despite the groundswell of opinion, the strategic importance of the Okinawan archipelago, which is strung out from the Japanese mainland to Taiwan, makes it a vital bulwark against the rising might of China.

Neither Washington nor Tokyo, which depends on its ally for defence, is able to approve a scaling down of troops from the area.

In Tokyo, 50 people rallied outside Noda's office last night, holding banners and placards reading: "Get rid of bases and US troops' sexual violence and crimes," and "Don't trample on Okinawa".

Okinawa police said they had arrested Christopher Browning and Skyler Dozier Walker, both 23, on charges of raping and injuring the woman on Tuesday, hours before they reportedly planned to leave the island.

The local woman, whose identity was not revealed, suffered neck injuries, police said.

The leading Mainichi Shimbun daily, citing police sources, said the two servicemen, who flew to Okinawa on Sunday, had allegedly approached the woman on the street and sexually assaulted her.

A police spokesman said that the two servicemen had been handed over to prosecutors, who would decide on their formal indictment.