Gaffes Over Old Crime Inflame Base Debate in Japan

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TOKYO – Sixteen years after America’s top military commander in the Pacific was forced to resign over comments about a brutal rape in Okinawa, the incident is about to claim another top official and could complicate the long-running battle over American bases in Japan.

Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa faces censure after a seemingly cavalier response about the infamous 1995 attack during a parliamentary debate last week.  A 12-year-old girl was kidnapped and raped by three US servicemen as she walked home from school.

The incident sparked massive demonstrations and led to negotiations to reduce the US military presence in Okinawa.  The long-delayed plan to relocate the Marine air base at Futenma is one result.

Feelings on Okinawa are still raw, as Ichikawa learned when he told Diet members last week that he was not familiar “in detail” with the incident and that he preferred not to discuss it.

If the comment was clueless, so was the timing. A week earlier, Ichikawa fired the chief of the Defense Ministry’s Okinawa bureau after he used a euphemism for “rape” to describe the government’s efforts to push through the relocation plan over local opposition. Satoshi Tanaka’s comments came during a supposedly off-the-record drinking session with Okinawa-based reporters, but were in print before the last round was served.

For me, the incident was a flashback to the firing of US Pacific Command chief Adm. William Macke in November 1995.  I was among a group defense writers who met with Macke over breakfast in Washington shortly after the Okinawa incident.

Macke said all the right things during the hour-long interview: The rape was a terrible tragedy.  His heart went out to the victim and family. Such behavior does not reflect the values of American servicemen and women. He would do everything possible to make sure nothing like this happened again.

But as the meeting broke up and notebooks were put away, Macke wondered aloud how the three attackers could be so “stupid” as to use a rented van during commission of the crime. Police found the men through rental records.

Clearly mystified, Macke said, “For the price they paid to rent the car, they could have hired a hooker.” As if rape, prostitution and 12-year-old schoolgirls are related. His comments were on the newswires an hour later, and he was fired before the sun went down.

The latest gaffes in Japan come at a bad time for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.

Noda has promised to submit an environmental document by the end of this month that would finally set in motion the relocation plan. But that report is almost certain to be rejected by Okinawa authorities and it won’t help if Ichikawa is around to deliver it. It’s not clear how, or if ever, the base issue will be resolved.

So far, Noda says he doesn’t plan to ask Ichikawa to resign, but it’s unlikely he’ll last long.  Ichikawa is a former Agriculture Department bureaucrat who he cheerfully admitted during his confirmation in September that he was “an amateur” on defense issues. His knowledge and competence on key issues like the Japanese peacekeeping mission in Sudan and selection of a new frontline fighter has been questioned in the Diet; fed-up members plan to introduce a censure motion on Friday.

Should Noda need a replacement, he might want to find a someone who has a clue.