A court issued an arrest warrant Monday for a U.S. Air Force sergeant suspected of raping an Okinawan woman in a trendy tourist area.
Japanese authorities moved with unusual swiftness to obtain a warrant for the suspect, identified by police as Timothy B. Woodland. Police said he denied involvement during questioning.
Yasuo Fukuda, Japan's top government spokesman, said today that Japan had formally requested that Woodland be handed over.
His comments came after Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Yutaka Kawashima summoned Richard Christianson, the interim chief of the U.S. mission, late Monday and demanded that the United States immediately hand over the suspect, according to media reports.
Christianson promised to convey Kawashima's wishes to his superiors and expressed his deep regret over the alleged incident, national broadcaster NHK television reported.
Only once before, in 1996, has an American serviceman suspected of a crime been turned over to Japanese custody before indictment. This would be the first time on Okinawa, home to the largest U.S. military base in Asia.
The island's governor, Keiichi Inamine, said authorities had sought a warrant--issued by a district court--"to get the process moving as soon as possible."
The attack has revived anger among Okinawa residents over the presence of about 26,000 U.S. troops on the southern Japanese island.
It was not clear when Woodland--identified as a 24-year-old staff sergeant at Kadena Air Base--might be transferred to Okinawan custody. He had been questioned by Japanese police for four straight days but was in U.S. military custody.
Police did not identify his hometown.
According to police, an Okinawan woman in her 20s was raped by Woodland in a parking lot about 2 a.m. Friday, after she had been drinking with friends at a nightclub in American Village, an area known for its bars and boutiques in the town of Chatan.
If charged, Woodland would probably be tried in a Japanese court and could face a maximum life sentence, though three to five years would be a more common sentence if he was convicted.
Virtually all cases that go to court in Japan end in convictions.