Outrage On 'The Rock'

The 30,000 American GIS stationed on Okinawa call it, not so affectionately, "The Rock." But the 1.2 million Japanese who live there proudly call it "The Land of Courtesy." And their hospitality has been sorely strained this month, since two U.S. marines and a sailor allegedly kidnapped a 12-year-old girl, shoved her into a rented car, covered her mouth with duct tape and raped her on a nearby beach. U.S. Ambassador Walter Mondale quickly offered a formal apology, but the uproar has only grown. "Hillary Clinton talked about protecting the human rights of women," said Suzuyo Takazato, an Okinawan who attended the women's conference in Beijing. "What about their own servicemen violating the human rights of women outside the U.S.?"

Relations between the troops and Okinawans are generally good, but sporadic violence -- including three rapes last year -- has kept resentment alive. And this scandal comes at a time when the Japanese feel especially vulnerable. Many Okinawans have long felt that the government in Tokyo, 1,000 miles to the north, treats the island as a third-rate tourist destination. They say the current Japanese prime minister, who heads a fragile coalition, may lack the clout to press the issue with Washington. "These things have happened before," says Japan expert Dick Samuels of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "but they have never happened at a time when there was such pent-up frustration in the Japanese-U.S. relationship."

Speaking at a radio station in California, President Clinton said he wanted to reassure the Japanese "that we are not turning a blind eye to this . . . that we respect them." But Okinawan politicians, always quick to play on resentment over the U.S. presence, decried the incident as "extreme barbarism that fully expresses the occupation mentality" and stepped up demands that the troops be withdrawn. Ambassador Mondale promised to review some portions of the 1960 Status of Forces Agreement, which sets out rules for U.S. troops in Japan. Okinawans object to a provision that prevents local police from arresting suspects until Japan has formally charged them with a crime. Islanders are still fuming over a 1993 rape case in which the suspect, under detention on the U.S. base, flew home before Japanese authorities had a chance to file charges against him.

What Okinawans really want is more respect -- from their own government, too. Emperor Akihito's visit to the island a couple of years ago did much to boost local pride. Residents want to draw attention to the fact that 60 percent of the U.S. troops in Japan are stationed on their island. "The U.S. should repent," said an editorial in the daily Ryukyu Shimpo, "but we also want the Japanese government to take more responsibility for the people of Okinawa." That's something President Clinton can't do much about.