Recent Sex Assault Cases Illustrate Strained Relationship Between Okinawa, Japan, and the United States

Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin completed his undergraduate and graduate education at a Texas university and has studied extensively in China. As a former Marine Corps intelligence analyst, he worked in the Indo-Pacific region. His areas of expertise include PLA modernization, particularly PLAN/PLANMC and its expeditionary capabilities, as well as CCP and Chinese domestic politics. He also runs the Sino Talk brand on Instagram and Twitter and is the IndoPacific Desk Chief for Atlas.

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Beginning in late June, Okinawan authorities indicted or arrested three US military personnel for kidnapping, sexual assault, or groping Okinawan teenagers and women. The incidents occurred as the Okinawa Prefectural Police admitted that it did not make public 15 out of the 30 sexual assault cases committed by US military personnel since 1995.

Sexual Assault Cases

On June 25th, prosecutors in the prefectural capital of Naha indicted an airman from the US Air Force on allegations that he kidnapped and sexually assaulted a girl under the age of 16. The incident occurred on December 24th 2023, when the individual met and invited the girl to speak to him in his car in a park in the town of Yomitan. The airman then drove the young woman to his residence, where he allegedly committed “indecent acts such as touching the lower half of the girl’s body with the knowledge that she was under 16.” An individual who knew the girl reported the incident the same day it occurred, and police said that both individuals did not know each other, and he did not live on any US military bases. The first hearing for the case is slated to occur on July 12th at Naha District Court.

However, prosecutors only indicted the individual in March, approximately three months after the incident occurred. Japan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry only became aware of the airman’s indictment in March and sent a diplomatic complaint to the US Ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanual. The ministry, however, did not notify the Okinawa Prefectural Government until it asked it on June 25th, according to Denny Tamaki, the Governor of the prefecture. Tamaki said the revelation caused “a significant level of distrust” in relations between the prefecture and the central government. He also described the allegations as “not just disturbing to prefectural residents but also a violation of the girl’s dignity.”

List of major sexual crimes that US military personnel committed on Okinawa from 1995 to 2024 that Prefectural Police did not disclose to public (Photo: Okinawa Times)

On June 28th, Okinawan authorities said they arrested a US Marine based on allegations of injuring a woman while attempting to rape her. Prosecutors indicted the Marine on June 17th for “allegedly choking the victim, unbuttoning her pants, and attempting to have sexual intercourse with her in Yomitan on May 26th.” However, the individual was unsuccessful in his attempt to rape the woman and required two weeks of treatment for various injuries sustained during the attack. The Marine left the scene, but police arrested him outside the base area on the same day. Tamaki said that “a vile crime has come to light once again, causing strong concern to the people of Okinawa.” He also said that the rules for police sharing information about incidents involving US military personnel will be reviewed.

On July 4th, police officers arrested another US Marine stationed at Camp Kinser located in Naha on “suspicion of violating the prefecture’s nuisance prevention ordinance for allegedly touching the chest of a woman in her 20s.” The incident occurred at 8:30 a.m. local time when the individual allegedly groped the woman’s breasts in the stairway of a building that has various restaurants and other stores. Police officers dispatched to the scene found the individuals on the street in front of the building and arrested them both after interviewing the Marine and the woman. The police station said they launched an investigation regarding the incident. The individuals did not know each other, and the suspect denied the charges. However, law enforcement said the Marine had an alcohol level approximately five times the legal limit for drunk driving.

Okinawa’s Reaction

The sexual assaults resulted in various Okinawan groups holding protests in front of Kadena Airbase, Camp Schwab, other military bases on the island, and Naha, as well as passing resolutions condemning the incidents. On June 28th, the group Flower Demo in Koza organized a protest outside Kadena Airbase’s Gate Two and the nearby Goya intersection. The organizers said that 100 people attended the demonstration. The protesters held signs and flowers while shouting slogans such as “Why should only Okinawa have to go through this?” Some of the protesters said they attended the protest because the victim was not at fault for the incident.

Protesters holding up signs and flowers during demonstration outside Kadena Airbase’s Gate Two on June 28th (Photo: Ryukyu Shimpo/Masahiro Ogawa)

Another protester said a riot similar to the 1970 Koza Riot could happen because of the December 24th incident. He also said he was not surprised by the potential for unrest. He also said that he was “angry” with the American and Japanese governments, and it is frustrating “that these kinds of things keep happening.” Another protester said she wondered if we [the local Okinawan population] haven’t done enough, but I want to let the victims know that they are not alone.” The protester then said the incident renewed her determination to “create an Okinawa where people can live in peace.”

On July 4th, the group Okinawa Citizens Association to Prevent Okinawa from Becoming a Battlefield Again organized an “Emergency Protest Rally to Consider Human Rights and Life” in Naha. The protesters demonstrated at Prefectural Citizens’ Square, located next to the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly and Administration buildings. The group said 600 individuals participated in the protest, held signs, and shouted slogans such as “We will not tolerate violence against women” and “We will not tolerate the cover-up of these incidents.”

Protesters shouting slogans and holding signs during protest at Prefectural Citizens’ Square on July 4th (Photo: Okinawa Times/Tetsuro Takehana)

The city councils of various Okinawan cities, such as Itoman and Nago, passed resolutions condemning the incidents, the Japanese government’s handling of them, and voicing their demands for the United States to reduce their presence on the island. The Itoman City Council passed an opinion paper and resolution “that protested the kidnapping and assault of a young girl by a US soldier in December last year and the assault of a woman by a US soldier in May this year.” Council members said the incidents caused anger and anxiety to spread “among the prefecture’s residents” and that “questions are growing” over the delay in releasing the incidents to the public.

The council also called for “restructuring of the information provision system for incidents and accidents by the US military.” The members addressed the protest resolution to the US Ambassador and the Okinawa Regional Coordinator for US Forces in Okinawa. The opinion letter was addressed to the Japanese Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Okinawa Defense Bureau’s Director General. The documents call for an apology, care, and compensation to be given for the incidents, measures to prevent future incidents, the “immediate extradition of suspects, the fundamental revision of the Japan-US Status of Forces Agreement, and the reorganization and downsizing of US military bases in Okinawa.”

Itoman City Council members passing resolution and opinion paper protesting the multiple incidents between US military personnel and Okinawan women on July 4th (Ryukyu Shimpo/Miho Iwakiri)

On July 2nd, the Nago City Council also passed a similar resolution and an opinion statement about the December 24th incident. The council addressed the protest resolution to the US President, the US Ambassador, and the Commanding General of the US military forces in Japan. The opinion statement was addressed to the Japanese Foreign Affairs Minister, the Okinawa Defense Bureau Director, the Prefectural Police Chief, and several other Japanese and Okinawan officials. The documents called on the American and Japanese governments to sincerely respond to the victims, to implement effective measures to prevent future incidents, and to “fundamentally review the Japan-US Status of Forces Agreement.” The council also urged the ministry and prefectural police to “promptly report incidents to the prefecture after they occur.”

On July 1st, Okinawa’s Prefectural Assembly’s Special Committee on US Military Bases also said they would adopt a resolution and opinion paper “protesting the sexual assaults by US soldiers at the committee meeting” by July 10th. The committee also heard from the prefectural police and governor’s office about the incidents and why they did not release details to the public until several months after they occurred. The Prefectural Police Criminal Affairs Division Chief said that they did not “release a press release about the case to protect the privacy of the victim.” However, the chief said the police would consider sharing information with the prefecture in the future while making sure to “protect the victim and ensure that their privacy is not violated.” The chief also pointed out that the December 2023 case was posted on its website in May 2024, and the police would have explained the outline and details of the case “if the prefecture asked about it at that stage.” Other committee members said it was “strange” because the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs knew about the cases, but the prefecture was not aware until they became publicly available.

Members of Okinawa Prefectural Assembly’s Special Committee on US Military Bases question Prefectural Police Criminal Affairs Division Chief and Governor’s Office Chief of Staff about incidents on July 1st (Photo: Ryukyu Shimpo/Okinawa Prefectural Assembly)

On July 3rd, Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki “protested” the Japanese government’s lack of sharing information about sexual criminal cases involving US military personnel in the prefecture. Tamaki delivered a “letter of protest” to Japanese Foreign Affairs Minister Yoko Kamikawa during their meeting. He also said that the Foreign Ministry’s failure to inform the prefecture about the cases is an “extremely big problem.” The minister said that the government will ask the US military to implement measures to prevent similar incidents in the future, and that she is “filled with an intolerable sense of gravity.”

Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki (Left) talking with Japanese Foreign Affairs Minister Yoko Kamikawa (Right) during meeting in Tokyo on July 3rd (Photo: Kyodo News Agency)

 Sexual Assault Cases Show How Relations Can Become Strained and Exploited

The sexual assault cases on Okinawa illustrate how easily the relationship between Okinawa, Japan, and the United States can become strained regarding certain sensitive issues. Furthermore, these issues could also be used by Chinese influence operations in an effort to dislodge or force Japan and the United States to reduce their military presence on Okinawa. The most significant aspect of the controversy is that the Japanese Foreign Affairs Ministry did not inform the prefectural government about the two sexual assault cases. The lack of transparency caused significant strain on the relationship between Okinawa, Japan, and the United States. The strain was further compounded by the Japanese government when it admitted it did not inform the Okinawan prefectural government about three other sexual assault cases between 2023 and 2024. The Okinawa Prefectural Police also inflamed tensions because it did not publicly release half of all sexual assault cases that involved US military personnel since 1995. Okinawa has a historical mistrust of how Japan and the United States handled incidents between US personnel and the local Okinawan population. The Okinawan government and population are especially sensitive to any sexual assault cases involving US military members as a result of the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by three U.S. servicemen.

The Japanese government response to the revelation was aimed at decreasing tensions between it, the US military, and the Okinawan government to prevent tensions from increasing. Japanese Vice Foreign Affairs Minister Masataka Okano met with the US Ambassador to voice the country’s “dismay” over the incidents. Furthermore, the minister also urged Emanuel to call for the US military to enact measures to prevent future incidents from occurring on the island during a press conference with Japan’s Defense Minister Minoru Kihara. Kihara expressed his regret about the incidents and how they caused significant anxiety among local residents and “should not have happened.”

The government announced a new process to share information regarding crimes involving US military members and Japanese civilians, as long as it does not compromise the victim’s privacy. Japan chose this response as a compromise to show the Okinawan prefectural government that it takes its concerns about sexual assault incidents seriously and allows the United States to implement the necessary measures to prevent further incidents. However, Tamaki pointed out that the Japanese efforts, especially the new information sharing system, are “a step forward” in handling the issue. The prefectural government, the various city councils, and other groups would also view Japan’s efforts as only beginning to respond to their grievances.

Japan and the United States want to prevent the incidents from providing the groups with additional momentum to expand their protests to other issues, such as the overall US military presence and the ongoing efforts to relocate Futenma Marine Corps Air Station to the northern area of Okinawa. Both countries do want the protests to expand because China would use them to increase the influence operations it conducts on Okinawa and fulfill its long-term objective of pushing the US military presence out of the Western Pacific. Furthermore, China understands that it can use some of the Chinese Overseas Associations, which are fronts for the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, to advance its interests in Okinawa. These fronts would provide funding and other assistance to some of the organizations that advocate for the removal of US bases on Okinawa, increased autonomy, or independence of the Ryukyu Island Chain. This would allow China to increase its influence with the groups, as well as with prominent Okinawan leaders and politicians that the groups interact with at meetings, galas, or other activities.