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Being a Better Neighbor

June 22, 2003

Residents of Okinawa are ambivalent about U.S. military bases on their island, happy to reap the economic benefits but angry about noise from jet fighters, lack of access to large fenced-off areas and, especially, crimes by American servicemen.

Last week, military officials showed they had learned lessons from past disputes. Rather than wait until protests became widespread, they moved quickly to defuse tensions caused by a rape accusation against a 21-year-old Marine lance corporal.

The agreement between Japan and the United States covering the stationing of nearly 50,000 U.S. service members specifies that accused U.S. military personnel can be kept out of Japanese custody until prosecutors bring formal charges. That caused problems, especially in a notorious 1995 case in which two Marines and a sailor were charged with abducting a 12-year-old from a street in an Okinawa town and raping her.

For weeks, Okinawans protested because U.S. military police held the three instead of handing them over to Japanese authorities. Americans said Japanese authorities were too slow in filing formal charges.

By the time the military turned the men over, the atmosphere was poisoned. Normally nonpolitical Okinawans demonstrated outside the gates of U.S. bases, joining leftists and nationalists who often demand a U.S. withdrawal from the island.

But last week, U.S. military authorities gave Okinawan police custody of the Marine, who is suspected of raping a 19-year-old Japanese woman on Okinawa on May 25. Americans agreed after earlier incidents that in some cases they would not wait for formal Japanese charges to be filed, so long as the accused were treated fairly, with visits by U.S. diplomats and lawyers allowed.

Okinawa is Japan's poorest prefecture; its residents feel looked down on by both Americans and other Japanese. Rents for the bases, paid by the Japanese government, and local spending by U.S. soldiers and sailors are an important part of the economy. But occasional crimes by Americans against residents have been a problem since bases went up in 1945. After the handover of the Marine last week, Okinawa's governor again demanded changes in the agreement on stationing U.S. forces in Japan.

Three years ago, President Clinton told U.S. troops they "need to be good neighbors" to Okinawans. With 20% of the island given to bases and Okinawa home to more than half the U.S. military members in Japan, that's often difficult. This month's sensible handling of a potentially inflammatory case demonstrates the importance of quick action and smart diplomacy.

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