TOKYO -- The apparent rape this month of a 12-year-old Japanese school girl by three American servicemen in Okinawa has provoked an uproar in Japan, bringing calls to revise rules that critics say make it easy for American soldiers to get away with crimes and calls to remove American military bases.
Seeking to quell the outcry, Ambassador Walter F. Mondale and Lt. Gen. Richard B. Myers, commander of U.S. military forces in Japan, apologized to Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota at a meeting yesterday at the American Embassy.
"This terrible tragedy was an outrageous act toward humanity and makes all of us wearing the U.S. military uniform deeply ashamed," General Myers said later at a news conference.
The controversy comes as the United States and Japan are trying to reaffirm their security relationship at a time when critics say the end of the Cold War makes it unnecessary to station 45,000 American troops in Japan.
The alleged rape occurred Sept. 4 in northern Okinawa. The girl was walking home from shopping about 8 p.m. when she was grabbed off the street by men in a car, bound with adhesive tape, taken to a beach and raped.
The three suspects, being held in a U.S. military prison in Okinawa, are Marine Pfc. Rodrico Harp, 21, of Griffin, Ga.; Marine Pfc. Kendrick M. Ledet, 20, of Waycross, Ga., and Navy Seaman Marcus D. Gill, 22, of Jasper, Texas.
It is not likely that the episode will cause a re-evaluation of the entire bilateral security treaty. But it is leading to calls here for a change in the so-called status-of-forces agreement, which stipulates that members of the American armed forces suspected of crimes will not be turned over to the Japanese authorities until after they are formally indicted.
Foreign Minister Yohei Kono said yesterday that he saw no need to change the agreement since it was not impeding the investigation.
But Mr. Ota and many local assemblies in Okinawa have called for a revision, saying the agreement puts American military members above the law, making it hard for Japanese police to apprehend them.
Two years ago, for instance, an American soldier accused of raping a Japanese woman escaped to the United States after being held on his base. The man was eventually brought back to Japan, but the charges against him were dropped by the accuser, said a Marine spokesman in Okinawa.
Mr. Mondale said yesterday that the United States was cooperating in the rape investigation and was taking the three suspects to an Okinawa police station for interrogation every day.
There are 29,000 American troops on Okinawa, said a Marine Corps spokesman there.
About 75 percent of U.S. military installations in Japan are on the small island, and these bases take up 20 percent of Okinawa's land. Mr. Ota said yesterday that there had been 4,500 criminal cases involving American servicemen since 1972.
The greatest challenge to the bases in Japan, however, might not be Japanese opponents, but American budgetary constraints and the end of the Cold War.
On Sept. 27, in New York, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Secretary of Defense William J. Perry will meet with their Japanese counterparts and announce a new accord increasing the amount of money the Japanese government will pay for keeping the American forces in Japan.
In their summit meeting scheduled in November in Japan, President Clinton and Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama are expected to issue a statement reaffirming the security relationship.