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Okinawan Anger Signals Change : Rape case crystallizes the island's resentment of big U.S. military presence

October 24, 1995

By the time President Clinton arrives in Osaka for the Nov. 16 opening of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, the Japanese trial of three U.S. servicemen charged with raping a 12-year-old schoolgirl on Okinawa, set to begin Nov. 7, probably will be over. But the political fallout from that case seems sure to vex U.S.-Japan relations for a long time.

Last weekend saw the largest protest rally in Okinawa's history, a sign of unabated outrage over the Sept. 4 rape and of long-term resentment over the large and, say Okinawans, excessively intrusive U.S. military presence. More than half of the 45,500 American troops in Japan are based on Okinawa, as are three-fourths of the U.S. military facilities in Japan. The island measures 454 square miles, almost exactly the size of Los Angeles.

It's clear that change is coming in a U.S. presence that dates back 50 years to the costly conquest of Okinawa in the final months of World War II. Defense Secretary William J. Perry says Washington is ready to consider a reduced U.S. role on Okinawa if Japan requests it.

Certainly most Okinawans support a cutback in troops and U.S. training exercises on the island. Also likely are changes in the Status of Forces Agreement, which governs actions by and concerning U.S. troops on Japanese territory. For instance, Japanese officials want the authority to more quickly take custody of Americans suspected of committing crimes against Japanese. This is a politically charged issue, not least because there are certain to be forces in Congress resisting what they see as a threat to the legal rights of U.S. personnel.

Perry believes, and most Japanese probably still agree, that the United States and Japan share a strategic interest in keeping American troops in Japan. But the disappearance of the Soviet threat, the basis for the mutual security pact, requires a fresh justification, a tricky exercise given that neither country is ready to openly acknowledge their concerns over the potential of a militarily assertive China. Perry will be in Japan later this month. Both he and the President will have a lot to talk about with their hosts.

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