The Status Quo Remains on Trial : Sentencing in rape case will not solve the Okinawa problem

The three U.S. servicemen convicted and sentenced by a Japanese court for the abduction, beating and rape of a 12-year-old girl on Okinawa last Sept. 4 might almost consider themselves fortunate. Though prosecutors had asked for sentences of 10 years, the court sent two of the men, Navy Seaman Marcus Gill and Marine Pfc. Rodrico Harp, to prison for seven years, with a sentence of 6 1/2 years for Marine Pfc. Kendrick Ledet. In different circumstances a far harsher outcome was possible. Japanese law, for example, allows up to life in prison for rape that causes injury, as the Okinawa case did. Had the men been convicted in a court-martial under the United States' Uniform Code of Military Justice they might have faced a similar sentence. Conviction on the same felony charges in, say, a California superior court could have brought decades of imprisonment.

Reverberations from this case, which has become notorious throughout Japan, are sure to continue. The objections long raised by Okinawa's 1.2 million people to the American military presence on their island can no longer be ignored by the central government or dismissed by U.S. officials.

Though Okinawa represents only 1% of Japan's total area it is the site of about 75% of the land used by the American military under security agreements with Tokyo and home to 27,000 of the 47,000 Americans stationed in Japan. Many Okinawans blame poor local economic conditions on the American presence, though long neglect by Tokyo of the country's poorest region also figures powerfully in their plight.

The problem for Tokyo and Washington is that both want to keep U.S. forces in Japan at their current strength, but Tokyo is not eager to see troops from Okinawa shifted to bases on the home islands. Clinging to the status quo, though, is certain to invite further frictions with Okinawans. A brutal crime has helped call attention to a festering, even explosive situation. The end of the rape trial should not now be an excuse for a return to complacency.

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