After several days of negotiations, the United States today agreed in principle to turn over to Japan an American serviceman accused of raping a Japanese woman last week in Okinawa, a U.S. government official said.
As of early afternoon Tokyo time today, however, the two sides were still negotiating last-minute hand-over details. Staff Sgt. Timothy B. Woodland, 24, arrived at a Japanese police station in Okinawa this morning for an eighth straight day of questioning but returned to Kadena Air Base for lunch. New U.S. Ambassador Howard H. Baker Jr. said in a statement that he hoped the issue would be resolved by day's end.
The case has commanded the attention of top political and military leaders on both sides of the Pacific. It also has underscored how allegations involving a single serviceman can create a diplomatic brouhaha threatening U.S.-Japanese relations.
Woodland is accused of raping a Japanese woman in her 20s on June 29 in a parking lot outside a row of bars in the Okinawan town of Chatan. The hand-over, assuming it occurs, would be only the second time a U.S. serviceman suspected of a serious crime has been turned over to the Japanese before being indicted.
In 1996, a U.S. soldier accused of attempted murder and robbery in Nagasaki prefecture was handed over hours after Japan issued an arrest warrant, compared with a four-day wait in this case. He was eventually sentenced to 13 years for the crimes.
The U.S. official, who asked not to be identified, said the delay this time was tied to the need to negotiate assurances governing Woodland's detention by Japanese authorities.
Generally, U.S. military personnel suspected of committing serious crimes in Japan are not turned over until after they have been indicted under Japanese law, as governed by the so-called Status of Forces Agreement.
Given the political sensitivity in this case and enormous pressure from the Japanese to turn over Woodland, the U.S. has sought assurances that he would have access to proper legal counsel and an interpreter and be treated in a humane manner.
Woodland has reportedly maintained his innocence during eight interrogations by Japanese police during the past week, insisting that any sexual contact was consensual. Police say his fingerprints were found on a parked vehicle and that he failed a polygraph test.
For many Japanese, news of an apparent agreement to hand over Woodland was welcomed but seen as late. "Finally!" said Tetsuya Kimura, a 34-year-old company worker. "To be honest, I thought it should have been much earlier. Japan should have indicted him, rather than simply waiting for the hand-over."
U.S. officials said, however, that Japan's heavy legal dependence on confessions has undercut its ability to move faster. Prosecutors generally are reluctant to indict a suspect without an admission of guilt, upon which they depend to build their case.
Some Japanese also sharply criticized both governments for allowing the U.S. to set conditions in advance of transferring Woodland into local custody.
"It's ridiculous. As long as the serviceman is here, he should have to abide by Japanese law," said Kaori Kobayashi, a 45-year-old company executive in Tokyo. "The U.S. wants to protect the rights of its suspects, but what about the human rights of Japanese victims?"
Driving both nations' responses to the alleged crime and the high-level attention it has received is a range of political, military and sociological issues. The incident happened just hours before Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi boarded a plane for his first summit with President Bush, held last weekend at Camp David.
Koizumi's reluctance to push Bush more aggressively on the issue--along with the relatively tame response by firebrand Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka--potentially represents the Japanese government's first real political challenge since the hugely popular prime minister was elected in late April.
"Given that Koizumi hasn't handled the issue very well, he could see his support drop sharply," said Rinjiro Sodei, professor emeritus of foreign relations at Hosei University in Tokyo. "We've had great expectations that Tanaka and Koizumi will be strong leaders."
This dynamic has led to a rising chorus for prompt U.S. action as the Japanese media and public continued to pressure the government. Okinawa, which hosts nearly half the 53,000 U.S. troops in Japan, has suffered a string of similar occurrences in recent years and is pushing for a revised Status of Forces Agreement.
On the U.S. side, the seemingly slow response reflected in part a difference of opinion between the State Department, which sought to hand the suspect over quickly, and the Defense Department, which resisted any quick move that might create a precedent.
At the upper reaches of both governments, meanwhile, are echoes of the February sinking of a Japanese fisheries vessel by the U.S. nuclear submarine Greeneville off Hawaii and the resultant damage to bilateral relations.
The issue also comes as both nations are angling to change aspects of the basic military relationship, which ultimately requires support from the Japanese public. The U.S. wants a more proactive Japan willing to take a stronger role in defense. And Japan has been slowly flexing its own muscles, adding refueling capabilities to its fighter aircraft and a more aggressive naval capability to defend against incursions by naval vessels from North Korea or other nations.
"If more similar incidents happen in the future, it could worsen U.S.-Japan relations," said Hirokazu Matsumoto, international relations professor at Nihon University. "They want to contain the damage. They also need to create more routine procedures so this doesn't draw in the very top national leaders on both sides each time a similar crime occurs."
Rie Sasaki in The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.