Okinawa has been eager to expel U.S. troops. A murder-suicide is pouring fuel on those flames.
A suspected murder-suicide involving a U.S. sailor and a Japanese woman has inflamed decades-long relations between thousands of U.S. troops and Okinawans, many of whom resent the American presence there.
The sailor fatally stabbed an unidentified woman on the island, southwest of mainland Japan, before turning the knife on himself, Stars and Stripes reported. Police found their bodies Saturday. A Marine Corps spokesman identified the sailor as Navy corpsman Gabriel A. Olivero, 32, who was attached to a Marine unit there.
Olivero’s suspected domestic violence against the woman was known to U.S. military and local police officials as early as January, Stars and Stripes reported.
The incident is among the high-profile crimes involving U.S. forces in Okinawa that have angered officials and the community for decades. Okinawans have said violence, loud aircraft and pollution while hosting about 25,000 U.S. troops are too great a burden for the island to bear.
Okinawa is a strategic linchpin that houses the largest U.S. air base in the Asia-Pacific region, and about half of all U.S. forces in Japan are based there.
Takeo Akiba, the Japanese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, asked U.S. Ambassador William Hagerty for cooperation in the investigation and expressed “extreme regrets,” the Associated Press reported.
Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki, who won his seat by opposing new construction of U.S. bases, said he was “indignant” over the slaying, and he renewed calls for Tokyo and Washington to draw down the U.S. presence there, Jiji Press reported.
Lt. Gen. Eric Smith, commander of the III Marine Expeditionary Force, asked U.S. troops to keep a muted public profile and to avoid behavior such as being loud or eating at restaurants, out of “solidarity” with locals, the AP reported.
“This is an absolute tragedy, and we are fully committed to supporting the investigation into the incident,” said Lt. David Mancilla, a spokesman for Marine forces in Okinawa.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which declined to comment, is working with local police investigators.
In installations around the world, U.S. troops occasionally, if rarely, commit crimes in foreign communities.
But experts say the reactions to those crimes in Okinawa have been far more sensitive and incendiary than anywhere else and have complicated relations between otherwise strong allies.
The island is culturally distinct from mainland Japan, and locals there have called for a reduction or total removal of U.S. troops since the 1995 rape of a 12-year old girl by three U.S. service members, said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
Cancian, who served as a Marine officer in Okinawa, said the island and the rest of Japan have a relationship similar to that between Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland: There are cultural ties but significant political divergences between locals and the central government. That has led to pressure directed at Tokyo over U.S. troops there.
“There are several tensions coming together when it comes to crimes committed by Americans,” Cancian said Monday.
In 2006, the U.S. and Japanese governments agreed to divert thousands of American troops from a base in the south of the long, narrow island that has become the focal point of tensions. The base was built in rural fields decades ago, Cancian said, but development has flooded the area. U.S. aircraft roar over apartments and businesses, sending locals into a fury.
Japan agreed to spend billions to help relocate troops and family members to Guam, Hawaii and the continental United States, Cancian said.
That decision was driven by local resentment and protests rather than strategic interests, Cancian said, but now defense officials can point to aggressive Chinese expansion as a reason to move U.S. forces farther out.
Calls for reductions of U.S. troops have been constant since the 1995 rape and other crimes, including a spate of drunken-driving collisions that have killed civilians and led to alcohol bans at U.S. bases.
In 2017, an Okinawa court sentenced contractor and former Marine Kenneth Gadson to life in prison for the rape and murder of Rina Shimabukuro in Uruma. That incident was referenced by Tamaki in a fiery letter to Smith, Stars and Stripes reported.
“The Uruma incident is still fresh in our memory and then this incident happens,” Tamaki said. “I don’t see any disciplinary systems working properly.”
Cancian said Saturday’s killing probably wouldn’t tip over U.S.-Japan relations on its own. Incidents like this are rare, he said, but have occurred often enough since the 1990s that a playbook for defense officials has emerged.
“There will be a lockdown of U.S. troops and a general will express regret,” Cancian said. “And then everyone will march on.”
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