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A Rape on Okinawa Makes Waves across East Asia

Rising tensions in Asia are putting some old problems back on the front burner. One of these is the American military base on Okinawa.

In some ways this is a dispute between Okinawans and mainland Japanese. The mainland of Japan has been happy to keep many of the Americans involved in Japanese defense on this remote and faraway island chain. For Okinawans, the presence of the base is not only irritating in itself, it’s symbolic of the way Tokyo marginalizes Okinawan concerns.

In the latest incident, two 23-year-old Americans stationed at the base have been arrested for the alleged rape of a woman on the island. The Washington Post has the story:

Japanese police have arrested two U.S. sailors in Okinawa on charges of raping a local woman, to which one of the Americans reportedly later confessed. The incident is sadly not the first of its kind on this densely populated Japanese island, where a large U.S. military base houses 15,000 to 20,000 Marines and 10,000 Air Force personnel. The backlash is snowballing in Japan, where the Okinawa base has long been a source of  national political controversy, one with larger geopolitical meaning for the United States and Japan.

These kinds of arrests and the demonstrations that follow have been an unfortunate but regular occurrence on the Okinawa scene for many years now. But in the context of bitter quarrels between Japan and China over island territories, and with the U.S. presence in the Pacific becoming more important than ever, such incidents now reverberate through a whole series of great power relations and international issues.

In particular, tensions over the base in Okinawa reinforce a powerful surge of nationalism in Japan. At the same time, Japan’s growing problems with China reinforce concerns that many in Japan have about what they see as the island nation’s passive dependence on the United States since 1945. Many Japanese nationalists would like to see a stronger and more independent Japan. Such a Japan might well prefer to develop its own nuclear capability rather than relying on American guarantees.

Changes are not coming overnight, and concerns about a rising China encourage many Japanese to strengthen their American alliance rather than to chart their own course in world affairs. But given the state of things in Asia today, even a small police incident on Okinawa raises profound questions about the future of the region.

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