Lifestyle: Familiar problems persist on Okinawa 20 years after brutal rape of schoolgirl

(From Asahi Shimbun)

When Mitsuko Tomon heard that an Okinawa schoolgirl had been raped by three U.S. military servicemen, her first thought was: “Not again.”

Mitsuko Tomon

Mitsuko Tomon

Tomon, who was Okinawa vice governor at the time, was not the only one outraged by that crime committed 20 years ago on Sept. 4. Outrage on the island prefecture was so intense that the United States agreed to return to Japan the land used as the site for the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan.

But two decades later, the Futenma air station is still used by the U.S. Marines, and crimes committed by U.S. military personnel continue to be a thorny problem.

“It may be that from the very beginning, our feelings never reached other Japanese outside of Okinawa,” Tomon, 72, said.

When Tomon arrived at the Okinawa prefectural government building after reports of the rape surfaced, she saw a female worker who had been crying. Her hands were shaking.

Four months earlier, a woman in her 20s was beaten in Ginowan by a U.S. soldier.

Over a 27-year period after the end of World War II, Okinawa was under U.S. occupation, and crimes committed by U.S. military personnel were a persistent problem.

In 1955, when Tomon was in junior high school, a schoolgirl living in a nearby community was raped and murdered by a U.S. soldier.

Tomon’s phone in her vice governor’s office did not stop ringing on Sept. 4, 1995. Women’s groups in Okinawa organized protests directed at the U.S. military and the Japanese government.

In October 1995, a protest rally drew 85,000 people, according to organizers.

“Women and children who are powerless suffer the most under military control,” Tomon said. “I think everyone in Okinawa realized that even though it had been returned to Japan, nothing about the situation had changed.”

Anti-rape protest in Tokyo

Anti-rape protest in Tokyo

While the strong protest led to the agreement on returning Futenma to Japan, Tomon feels that empathy outside of Okinawa declined thereafter.

In 2000, Tomon was elected for the first time to the Lower House. She remembers asking a question at the Foreign Affairs Committee and being heckled, “Are you talking about U.S. bases again?”

Tomon later served as Okinawa city mayor between 2006 and 2014. Sex crimes by U.S. military personnel continued.

When protests were lodged with the base commander or the Japanese government, officials invariably promised to make efforts to prevent a recurrence.

“I felt that behind such comments was the attitude that for the sake of ‘peace,’ there may have to be some sacrifice, so just bear with it,” Tomon said.

She also said she recently felt a sense of coldness from people outside of Okinawa.

In 2013, she joined a protest march in Tokyo’s Ginza district involving 41 mayors from Okinawa. They were demanding that the Futenma air station be relocated outside of Okinawa.

One bystander yelled, “Okinawa should not try to take advantage.”

Although Tomon always felt that they had made consistent arguments about problems they faced on a daily basis, from crime and accidents to noise pollution from U.S. military aircraft, the perception among those outside Okinawa had, for some reason, changed over the years.

Statistics kept by the Okinawa prefectural government show fluctuating numbers in terms of crimes committed by U.S. military personnel.

In 1995, 70 crimes involved such personnel, representing 0.5 percent of all crimes committed in the prefecture. Although the number of U.S. base-related crimes increased to 112 in 2003, accounting for 1.8 percent of all crimes in Okinawa, the number had fallen to 29 cases, or 0.7 percent of the total, in 2014. Read more


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