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Rape allegation raises sensitive issues in Japan

Times Staff Writer

The Japanese prime minister has described the alleged rape of a 14-year-old girl by an American Marine as “unforgivable.” The foreign minister declared that Japan has “had enough” of such incidents. And the government’s most senior Cabinet official promised that Japan would raise the issue of misconduct with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she visits next week.

Few events have animated the top levels of government recently as much as the alleged rape this month on Okinawa Island, which has a large U.S. military presence that has long been a source of tension with residents. Senior Japanese politicians have continued to berate the United States, citing other less serious incidents involving troops, despite expressions of regret from U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer and new restrictions on off-base travel for U.S. forces in Japan.

The suspect, 38-year-old Staff Sgt. Tyrone Luther Hadnott, is in Japanese custody. Japanese news media, quoting police sources, have reported that he denies raping the girl but admits forcibly kissing her.

The intensity of the reaction arises, in part, from a 1995 gang rape of a 12-year-old Okinawa girl by three U.S. servicemen that provoked massive anti-American demonstrations, and from the desire of the United States and Japan to avoid similar protests.

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And the mood was darkened further Thursday with reports of another U.S. serviceman under investigation on suspicion of raping a Filipino woman in an Okinawa hotel.

But many here, though they share in the condemnation of sexual assault, argue that Japanese politicians are speaking out forcefully only because of the acute sensitivities of Okinawa’s status as host to about 42,500 Americans, the bulk of the U.S. military presence in Japan.

Japanese officials privately acknowledge that their recent criticisms are motivated, in part, by the need to assuage Okinawa public opinion, especially at a time when Washington and Tokyo are seeking to relocate a major Marine air base in the face of strong local opposition.

“It’s all a performance,” said Kantoku Teruya, an Okinawa lawmaker in the upper house of Japan’s parliament.

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“They are afraid of Okinawa’s growing rage over the base relocation, so they imposed a curfew and promised to tighten discipline.

“But they’ve promised this before. And it is not working.”

Critics of the government say serious crimes committed on Japan’s main island have never drawn such stern rebukes, pointing out that the 2006 slaying of a 56-year-old Japanese woman by a U.S. sailor, later sentenced to life in prison, was handled without fanfare.

Japanese police and U.S. military statistics show that serious crimes committed by American servicemen in Japan have decreased in the last five years. And critics say the lecturing tone of the Japanese government is discordant in a country where rape victims are so poorly treated that there is no 24-hour rape crisis hotline, and the 1,948 rapes reported to police in 2006 are believed to be far below the actual number.

“Most of the clients I see won’t go to the police because of the way they are treated,” said Takako Konishi, a psychologist who assists female victims of violence at Tokyo’s Musashino University. “There is still a concept in Japan that women are responsible for putting themselves in bad situations, and women don’t want to risk criticism from their friends and family by going public.”

Some rape victims in Japan describe their experience with police as deeply humiliating. An Australian woman raped by an American serviceman in 2002 recalls being questioned for several hours without police providing medical care or an opportunity to shower.

They also demanded that she return to the scene of the crime to reenact the rape for police photographers, a standard Japanese police practice. Prosecutors would not press charges, but she won damages in a civil case.

Critics of the government also note that U.S. military authorities continue to investigate allegations of rape against four Marines in Hiroshima last fall, whereas the Japanese justice system refused to press charges. The initial investigation was led by Japanese police, but prosecutors dropped the case without explanation in November.

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The problem, many here contend, is that Japanese attitudes toward violence against women remain rooted in antiquated male beliefs.

In 2003, the Weekly Bunshun magazine quoted then- Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda telling reporters in an off-the-record briefing that “there are lots of women who dress in a seductive way. I wonder if they know that half of human beings in the world are male. All men are black panthers.”

He later said his message was intended to be completely different.

Fukuda, 71, is now the prime minister, leading his government’s condemnation in the Marine’s case.

“It’s good to hear their formal condemnation of rape, but I fear our politicians are just behaving paternally,” said psychologist Konishi. “They single out American soldiers because they see this as a matter of Japanese property being violated by outsiders.”

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bruce.wallace@latimes.com

Hisako Ueno of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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