US troop presence in Japan goes on trial in rape case

Military in the dock: American forces try to mend relations with outraged Okinawa islanders
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"OJ Simpson had the right to silence," explains Sergeant Rogelio Roman to a squad of incoming Marines beneath a large red sign reading "Welcome to Okinawa".

"Over here, you don't have that right. You don't have the right to say nothing till your attorney arrives, and if you think you can go out and act just how you like, you gonna get your ass kicked. They'll either get the truth out of you, or they'll get something out of you. You commit a crime out in town, and your ass is on your own."

This is a bad time to be a US Marine in Okinawa and yesterday the District Court of Naha, the island's capital, heard the reasons why. Two Marines and a Navy seaman admitted to various degrees of complicity in the rape of a 12-year-old girl two months ago. The uproar and diplomatic fall- out have been unprecedented. Last month85,000 Okinawans rallied to demand the withdrawal of the 16 US bases which dominate the southern part of Okinawa. Last week, the Defense Secretary, William Perry, flew to Tokyo to apologise personally for the crime and to head off the calls for a wholesale revision of the US-Japan Security Treaty.

He promised "programmes directed at our younger service members that will try to ensure that such heinous acts are not repeated". But they were ominously cautious words: as almost everyone in Okinawa acknowledges, there is very little that can be done to prevent something similar happening again.

Sergeant Roman's "Welcome Aboard Briefing" seems to acknowledge this. It is shockingly practical: Don't get caught, rather than don't do it, is the message. "There's always 10 per cent who think they can break the system and do what they want. But a 12-year-old! What did they get out of that?" asks the sergeant. "It's not even worth it - especially when there's so many women want American men. If you're about to commit a crime, just think about it first."

The officers use different statistics. "Ninety-nine per cent of soldiers on this island are professional, competent, upstanding citizens," says Colonel Stuart Wagner of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force. "But there's only so much you can do."

Alcohol is no longer sold on base (although it can be freely bought in town, where the real damage is done). A big area of bars and nightclubs has been placed off-limits after midnight. Most ludicrous of all was a much-vaunted "Day of Reflection" during which training was to be suspended to "renew our core values of honour, duty and commitment". The Japanese media were not allowed in to see this, but when they pointed their cameras over the fences, they recorded servicemen flying helicopters in an embarrassingly unreflective manner.

The crucial difficulty is the concentration of forces: 47,000 troops on an island little more than 1,000 square kilometres in area. Sociologically this is a disaster. "Imagine a small city of 47,000 people," said Mr Perry last week. "Imagine asking that city to be crime-free, and you understand the problem."

Crime by servicemen is on a downward trend although rather an unspectacular one: there were six rapes in 1994, compared to seven in 1989. To Okinawans, though, that is hardly the point: if the military weren't here, there would be no military crime whatsoever.