The Suitcase Murder Tearing the U.S. and Japan Apart
A U.S. military contractor allegedly raped and murdered a Japanese woman in Okinawa—the latest reason for Okinawans to resent the U.S. military presence.
TOKYO — A series of horrific crimes by present and former U.S. military personnel stationed on Okinawa has triggered dramatic moves to try to reduce the American presence on the island and in Japan as a whole.
In the most recent incident, former U.S. Marine postal clerk Kenneth Franklin Shinzato was arrested May 19 for the rape and murder of a 20-year-old Japanese woman who had gone missing on April 28. Shinzato reportedly admitted to the crime on May 21. Shinzato, who took his Japanese wife’s family name, had been working as a military contractor on Kadena Air Base.
Shinzato allegedly drove around for several hours looking for a potential rape victim before forcing Rina Shimabukuro, an office worker in Uruma city, into his car. After raping her, Shinzato is alleged to have strangled and stabbed Shimabukuro, then put her body inside a suitcase before dumping it in the woods of a nearby village.
The controversy surrounding this and earlier cases has brought the Japanese government to a point where it may reconsider and try to revise what is sometimes called its “marriage contract” with the U.S. military, the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, which has not been touched since 1960.
But the outrage isn’t solely aimed at the U.S. military—the remilitarization policies of the Shinzo Abe-led coalition government have strengthened Okinawans’ fear that once again their homeland will become entangled in a war they don’t want, and they will suffer the consequences.
According to the Okinawa Prefectural Government, 74 percent of the U.S. military in Japan is located in Okinawa and over 5 percent of the economy is dependent on the U.S. bases. There are more than 47,000 military staff and family members in Okinawa comprising 25,000 soldiers, nearly 2,000 military contractors, and 20,000 family members. There are at least 33 military facilities, including bases, training grounds, camps, and storage areas.
Okinawa’s strategic location is particularly important now, at a time when there is increasing concern about China’s aggressive activities near the Senkaku Islands and in the South China Sea.
Over the years, the Japanese government has awarded billions of dollars in subsidies to Okinawa to offset the perceived “burden” of hosting U.S. troops. As recently as December 2013, Prime Minister Abe announced a 15 percent increase in the fiscal 2014 budget for Okinawa’s economic development, to 346 billion yen ($3.2 billion).
Yet, on May 26, for the first time, the Prefectural Assembly of Okinawa approved a resolution demanding the U.S. Marines leave Okinawa. The anger and dismay stoked by the crimes helped Okinawa’s staunchly anti-U.S.-base governor, Takeshi Onaga, and his political allies to achieve a majority in Prefectural Assembly elections on June 6.
The result will surely be longer delays in the long-promised movement of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from a crowded residential area to a less populated region—something that the government of Japan has been promising to do for more than two decades.
Most of the media, including many in the U.S., have reported on the crimes as if they were a constant problem in Okinawa, the tip of the iceberg. But while the crimes are horrific, statistically the U.S. military and its dependents may commit fewer crimes in Okinawa than the Okinawans themselves.
Onaga has claimed that U.S. military, contractors, and their families covered under the Status of Forces Agreement have committed 5,896 crimes since 1972. What he doesn’t point out is that government figures show Okinawa’s populace has a crime rate more than twice as high over the same period—69.7 crimes per 10,000 people, compared with 27.4 by SOFA members. The Okinawa Prefecture Police will not release statistics allowing for specific crime comparisons, further obscuring the matter.
But the problem, at its core, is not just about U.S. personnel and their actions. The current opposition to the U.S. in Okinawa is bolstered by the fact that the majority of Okinawans also dislike the Cabinet of the U.S.-leaning, militaristic Prime Minister Abe—and still harbor lingering distrust for mainland Japan. They feel that Okinawa remains, as it has been since 1879, when annexed by Japan, a political pawn in world politics and military strategy.
Abe, addressing the press after his meeting with President Obama on May 26, declared he had “firmly lodged a protest” about “the most recent case in Okinawa.” Abe said, “I feel profound resentment against this self-centered and absolutely despicable crime.”
With elections for the upper house of Japan’s parliament coming up soon, the display of outrage may have been more for show than for anything else. As pointed out by the Asahi Weekly, when the press first asked Abe about the arrest of Shinzato on the evening of May 19, Abe expressed disinterest and ignored questions.
In the past, Abe took several months before he even met with Onaga, and he turned down Onaga’s request to speak directly to Obama. After meeting with Abe, Onaga very publicly said that Abe “doesn’t have the slightest interest in standing with the Okinawans or the will of the people.” A more colloquial translation, and nuanced one, would be “He doesn’t give a fuck about us.”
The U.S. military responded to the tragedy brought on by the Shinzato incident by imposing a midnight curfew on all military personnel and their families, in addition to prohibiting alcohol consumption outside the bases—part of a self-proclaimed period of 30 days of mourning that started May 28.
Abe likely hoped the period would pass uneventfully and calm anti-base supporters. The Abe administration even proposed the “radical” move of “putting more streetlights in the cities of Okinawa.” Then, despite the curfew, Abe couldn’t escape yet another crime—albeit without serious injuries—that further fueled Okinawans’ ire toward the bases.
Aimee Mejia, a 21-year-old U.S. Navy petty officer stationed at Kadena Air Base, was arrested last Sunday for drunk driving, reportedly crashing head-first into two vehicles after swerving into the opposite lane. Mejia, whose blood-alcohol reading was six times over the legal amount, was uninjured, while two of the other cars’ passengers suffered a broken bone and bruising, respectively. The incident led U.S. Navy officials to issue increased restrictions for sailors, including a complete ban on alcohol consumption and being confined to their bases unless they reside in a nearby town.
The timing of Mejia’s DUI couldn’t have been worse, as a sense of arrogance and abuse accumulated. In addition to the DUI and the murder, in March this year police arrested a 24-year-old Navy seaman on charges that he raped a Japanese woman visiting from Fukuoka Prefecture. He later admitted to the charges and the U.S. top military issued an apology.
To understand the dynamic at work here, one needs to look beyond the sensationalism of the police blotter and the predictable cynicism of politicians, and start with recognition that Okinawa may belong to Japan, but that doesn’t make it fully Japanese.
If you ask Sakura Maesado, a 27-year-old Japanese-American whose father was in the U.S. military, what her nationality is, she will tell you, “I’m Okinawan.” She may even lecture you on the proper way to make a traditional Okinawan dish, Goya Champuru, and explain why SPAM is an essential ingredient and using real pork is a culinary travesty.
Maesado is not alone in feeling that her real heritage is not on the main islands. Okinawa has a long history of feeling like an unwanted child of Japan. It was an independent kingdom with its own language, history, and culture before Japan annexed it in 1879, forcing the last Ryukyuan king, Shō Tai, to relocate to Tokyo.
The government of Japan, as it would later do when it colonized Korea, tried to eliminate the Ryukyuan culture, including its language, religion, and traditions. Japan introduced public education that permitted only the use of standard Japanese, and their teachers ridiculed those who spoke the Ryukyu dialect.
Much of the bloodiest fighting in World War II between the U.S. and the Imperial Japanese forces took place in Okinawa. According to the January 2015 issue of the historical magazine Taiheiyosenso No Kioku (Memories of the Pacific War), more than 90,000 Okinawan civilians died as collateral damage. Even after the war ended on Aug. 15, 1945, some Japanese troops remaining in Okinawa didn’t surrender until Aug. 29. The Imperial Army also reportedly forced groups of Okinawan civilians to commit mass suicide, among them children, the handicapped, and the elderly.
Even after the American occupation of Japan ended, Okinawa remained under U.S. control until 1972. Perhaps because of this bitter history, there is great support for pacifism in Okinawa and anti-U.S. sentiment, although it is not shared by a majority of the people. In the 2015 poll by the government of Okinawa, 60 percent of the respondents said they “had friendly feelings” toward the United States.
But those positive vibes can be sorely tested by sensational crimes and even more sensational headlines.
Can these crimes be prevented? Grant Newsham, a retired Marine colonel who served as the Marine attaché in Tokyo and also at the U.S. Embassy, suggests that because of the volatile situation, the U.S. should treat military service in Japan as the “equivalent of embassy duty.” If possible, the U.S. military should screen all service members being deployed to Japan and not send problematic ones.
While overall serious crimes in Okinawa by U.S. service members are declining, they always receive major media coverage, and a few have left indelible impressions on the minds of Okinawans.
There was a terrible incident in 1995, when three U.S. servicemen captured and raped a 12-year-old schoolgirl in the back of their van. In the aftermath, the governments in Tokyo and Washington promised to relocate the Futenma base, opening up the land for local development. But 20 years have passed, and the base is still where it was.