Rape case blights US summit with Koizumi

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Today's summit meeting between America and Japan was blighted even before it began. A young Japanese woman on the island of Okinawa was allegedly raped yesterday, apparently by a group of American air force men.

The attack, the latest in a string of violent crimes involving servicemen on Okinawa, threatens to overshadow the meeting at Camp David between President George Bush and the Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi. The minister responsible for Okinawa, Koji Omi, said yesterday the government would make "a stern protest" over the incident once the details were confirmed.

The attack happened early yesterday morning in the Okinawan town of Chatan, close to the American Kadena air base. According to the police, a woman in her 20s was raped in a car park by a foreign man who made his getaway with a group of other foreigners in a vehicle marked with American military number plates. The car park is next to Chatan's so-called "American Village", which contains shops and bars frequented by US military personnel. The police were questioning several servicemen last night as well as an eyewitness to the attack – a Japanese female friend of the victim.

Mr Koizumi said, before boarding his flight across the Pacific: "After hearing the facts, we should act if we must. Both sides have to take measures to ensure that such crimes don't happen."

In 1995, the rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by three American marines provoked months of protests and forced a reassessment of military relations between Japan and the United States. There are 48,000 US servicemen in Japan, but 26,000 of them – and 75 per cent of US bases – are on Okinawa, a small group of islands that make up less than 1 per cent of Japan's land area.

Some 150,000 Okinawans died in 1945, in the only land battle on Japanese soil. Since the first American bases were established there after the end of the Second World War, there have been plane and helicopter crashes, complaints over environmental and noise pollution, disputes about land commandeered for the US bases and violent crimes perpetrated by American personnel.

After the 1995 rape, 100,000 people rallied to demand that the bases be removed. During last year's Group of Eight Summit on Okinawa, protesters formed a chain of hands around Kadena air base. Anger was rekindled in February when the commander of the American marines in Okinawa referred to the local Japanese politicians, who have questioned the US presence on their island, as "nuts" and "a bunch of wimps".

The government in Tokyo, however, has been reluctant to make changes to the arrangement that has guaranteed its security for more than 50 years. So far the Americans have agreed only to relocate bases to other parts of the island, although a fortnight ago Mr Koizumi's Foreign Minister, Makiko Tanaka, suggested to her counterpart, Colin Powell, that training exercises in Okinawa could be reduced.

Compared with Mr Bush's sometimes cool reception among European leaders, relations between America and Japan are good. Until the news of yesterday's rape, officials had been looking forward with great satisfaction to a trouble-free, feel-good summit. Much has been made of the fact that Mr Bush will entertain Mr Koizumi in the informal setting of Camp David, rather than at the White House. "Summit a breeze," the Asahi newspaper's headline predicted prematurely yesterday morning.

Tokyo has been ambivalent, but conciliatory, on the two issues that have most annoyed the Europeans; Mr Bush's plans to pull out of the Kyoto climate treaty, and his proposals for a missile defence shield against "rogue states".

Japan has made clear that it rejects ratifying the Kyoto Protocol without the Americans. According to Mr Koizumi's spokesman, Kazuhiko Koshikawa, the Prime Minister will try to persuade Mr Bush to stick with the treaty – a task many in Europe regard as impossible. "What Koizumi is going to do will be try to exert persuasion on Bush as a fellow leader," Mr Koshikawa said. "No more, no less."