Top U.S. military commanders and diplomats in Japan stepped up their damage-control efforts Tuesday in a bid to blunt anger here over the rape of a young woman, allegedly by a U.S. serviceman in Okinawa.
Immediately after stepping off the plane to take up his new post, incoming U.S. Ambassador Howard H. Baker Jr. sought to convey expressions of concern on behalf of the Bush administration.
"We express regret, sincere regret," he said at Tokyo's Narita airport. "We promise full cooperation."
Baker's comments dovetailed with similar statements made by Lt. Gen. Paul V. Hester, the top U.S. military commander in Japan, and by Lt. Gen. Earl B. Hailston, the top U.S. commander in Okinawa, who met with several local government officials.
All three major Japanese newspapers reported today that Timothy B. Woodland, the 24-year-old staff sergeant suspected of raping a Japanese woman outside Okinawa's Kadena Air Base on Friday, is expected to be arrested soon.
According to Japanese police, Woodland allegedly attacked an Okinawan woman in her 20s in a parking lot early Friday morning. She had reportedly been drinking with friends in American Village, a neighborhood in the town of Chatan, known for its bars and boutiques.
Master Sgt. Jesse Hall, a U.S. military spokesman, said that the case is under review but that as of early today--when many troops here are off for the July 4 holiday--there had been no arrest.
"We have reaffirmed our commitment to cooperate with local authorities," he said. "We regret any negative incident. Even one is too many."
Okinawa plays host to nearly half the 53,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan. In recent years, residents of Okinawa prefecture have been rankled by a series of incidents involving sexual crimes and harassment, fighting and theft, as well as broader noise pollution and land-use issues related to the large U.S. footprint left by the American troop presence.
Under the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement, Washington does not have to turn over any American military personnel accused of committing serious local crimes until he or she has been indicted. But given the sensitivity of this case, Tokyo and Washington could bypass many normal procedures and accelerate a hand-over. Woodland, however, has told police during questioning that he is innocent.
If charged in a Japanese court and convicted, Woodland faces a maximum sentence of life in prison, although a three- to five-year term would be more customary.
News of the alleged attack broke just before the Saturday summit at Camp David, Md., between Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and President Bush. More broadly, the alleged incident threatens to further strain U.S. relations with Okinawa residents and the broader Japanese population at a time when Washington is pushing for ambitious missile defense plans that rely heavily on Japanese cooperation.
Women's groups in Japan's southernmost prefecture plan to hold a mass meeting Saturday to express their indignation.
"There seems to be no end to the trouble caused by U.S. servicemen," said Hideko Tamanaha, the head of a women's association in Chatan. "This kind of unbelievable incident has happened so many times here. What do they think women are?
"And each time [the U.S.] can only say, 'It's very regrettable,' and 'We'd like to avoid such incidents as much as possible.' "
The Chatan town government condemned the crime in a resolution Tuesday and called for the U.S. to cut back on late-night leave by U.S. forces. Students at Okinawa's Ryukyu University are planning a protest today. In 1995, the area saw huge anti-base demonstrations after the rape of a 12-year-old girl involving three U.S. servicemen.
U.S. military spokesman Hall said there are no immediate plans to impose curfews, limit drinking by service personnel or otherwise restrict military leave time--steps that have been taken after previous incidents. He added that for every negative incident, there are dozens of positive moves between U.S. and Japanese citizens in Okinawa, including cultural exchanges and a recent Special Olympics sponsored by the U.S. military.
Rie Sasaki in The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.