THREE U.S. SERVICEMEN are in Japanese custody, charged with the rape of a 12-year-old girl on Okinawa. It is not the first such atrocity; it will not be the last, given the tensions bound to arise when 27,000 young Americans are concentrated on an overseas island. U.S. bases sprawl over 20 percent of Okinawa's land area and are home to 60 percent of the U.S. forces stationed in Japan.
These figures should be kept in mind in assessing the outrage that erupted after U.S. authorities waited 25 days before handing over the accused servicemen once they had been indicted. The American government had better figure out a way to speed up this outdated procedure without, however, jeopardizing the legal rights of U.S. service personnel.
Okinawan anger over the rape case has two underlying causes: First, a feeling that the outsized American military presence is a throwback to a U.S. occupation era that did not end until 1972; second, a feeling that the mainland government in Tokyo, as part its condescending attitude toward Okinawa, has been too willing to have a disproportionate number of foreign forces stationed on the island.
On both sides of the American-Japanese relationship there are contradictions ever ready to flare. Polls show that while the Japanese like America far more than China, Korea or Russia, they also fear it more. Americans, for their part, are constantly prodding Tokyo to pick up more of the multi-billion tab for maintaining U.S. forces in Japan but resent it when nationalist elements only too ready to take on new military tasks exhibit strong anti-American sentiments.
Washington should promptly reform its Status of Forces Agreement so that when President Clinton and Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama meet in mid-November they can address the economic and security issues roiling what former Ambassador Mike Mansfield often described as "our most important bi-lateral relationship -- bar none."