Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual assault.
One evening in March 2017, a U.S. sailor walked through the parking lot of a shopping mall in Kitanakagusuku Village, Okinawa, Japan, exposing himself to female customers. The area was crowded with cars and pedestrians, and for half an hour, the 23-year-old American masturbated in front of women and approached drivers stopped at traffic lights.
One witness reported what was happening to the mall’s security office. Using closed-circuit TV cameras, the guards located the suspect — still masturbating — and contacted the local police department. But before the officers arrived, the man got into his car and left the scene.
Witnesses told police the sailor ought to be severely punished. That didn’t happen.
It was easy for police to confirm that the suspect was a U.S. service member — his car’s license plate was stamped with the letter “Y,” a registration assigned to military members, their dependents, and contractors in Japan, more than 55,000 of whom live in Okinawa. The police determined that the suspect was a petty officer second class sailor stationed on a Navy installation within the U.S. Air Force’s Kadena Air Base, the largest U.S. facility in the Asia-Pacific region. Under questioning by police and Naval Criminal Investigative Service, or NCIS, agents, the sailor confessed to the offense. He also admitted to masturbating inside his car at the same mall and elsewhere on four previous occasions.
Witnesses told police that the incident had left them disturbed. One woman explained how the sailor had followed her while he was masturbating; she had felt “extremely sickened” and feared that he would assault someone. Describing the American’s actions as “hideous,” one of the security guards said he would not be able to forget what had happened. Both witnesses told police the sailor ought to be severely punished.
That didn’t happen.
Japanese prosecutors, who can request jurisdiction when U.S. service members commit offenses while off-duty, ceded control of the case to the military; by the time the Navy convened a court-martial, nine months had passed since the incident. The sailor pleaded guilty to indecent exposure and was sentenced to 90 days confinement and a bad conduct discharge. But due to a pretrial agreement, he received only 30 days and was permitted to leave the military under an administrative separation. He was not recorded on a sexual offender registry.
Despite the severity of the offense, and the lax punishment, the sailor’s crime was not made public. It required a series of Freedom of Information Act requests, which I filed with the NCIS in 2018 and 2019 and wrote about for the Okinawa Times in August. (This is the first publication of the FOIA results in English.) According to the NCIS case files, between 2017 and 2019 there were at least seven other investigations into U.S. military personnel for sexual offenses against Japanese women in Okinawa — and none were made public. Perpetrators had not been punished under Japanese law nor had their cases appeared in the annual reports produced by the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office for the U.S. Congress. (The Intercept has revealed similar gaps in reporting sexual assaults committed by U.S. troops in Africa.)
At the time of publication, United States Forces Japan had not provided comment on the apparent omission of these cases from the SAPRO reports.
It is a pattern familiar to Suzuyo Takazato, co-chair of the feminist group Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence and chair of the Rape Emergency Intervention Counseling Center Okinawa.
“Both the U.S. and Japanese governments want to minimize people’s awareness of the number of crimes committed by U.S. service members on Okinawa. They think if this information becomes public, it will harm U.S.-Japan relations. They believe the U.S.-Japan relationship should take priority over the rights of Okinawans,” she said.
Today, Okinawa prefecture is the reluctant host to 31 U.S. military bases, which occupy approximately 15 percent of the main island. Although the prefecture consists of less than 1 percent of Japan’s total land mass, it has 70 percent of the country’s U.S. facilities; 11 of the bases in Okinawa belong to the U.S. Marine Corps. Washington and Tokyo insist that these troops are needed to maintain stability in the region, but a majority of Okinawans have repeatedly expressed resentment toward the disproportionate burden placed on their prefecture. In a 2017 survey of residents conducted by Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, 26 percent of respondents called for all U.S. bases to be removed from their island, and another 51 percent wanted them to be reduced to a level equivalent to mainland Japan. Packing so many military facilities onto Okinawa concentrates many of the problems there: aircraft accidents, environmental contamination, and crime, particularly against women.
For more than 25 years, Takazato and the members of Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence have compiled an ongoing chronology of U.S. military rapes of Okinawan women. Combing through municipal records and interviewing victims, they have uncovered how the earliest attacks started soon after the U.S. invasion of Okinawa in 1945 and have continued unabated to the present day. The total number of victims runs into the hundreds, but Takazato says many cases remain hidden.
In mainland Japan and overseas, people are aware of only a few of these crimes, notably the rape of a 12-year-old girl by three U.S. service members in 1995 and the rape and murder of a 20-year-old woman by a former Marine in 2016. Both events triggered mass protests on the island, attended by tens of thousands of Okinawans demanding the revision of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA.
Established in 1960, SOFA outlines the rights and responsibilities of U.S. troops and military-related civilians living in Japan, including how they ought to be tried when they break local laws. SOFA gives the military jurisdiction over service members who commit offenses while in the performance of official duty, and it only requires suspects to be handed over to Japanese authorities after charges have been filed. Such loopholes have allowed the military to unilaterally determine what constitutes “on duty,” and they have impeded Japanese police’s ability to interview suspects.
Hiroshi Fukurai, a sociology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, explains that the roots of SOFA lie in the wave of U.S. colonization of islands such as Cuba, Hawaii, and the Philippines in the late 19th century: “The U.S. wanted to protect its citizens from what it saw as ‘odd’ local laws, so it created extraterritorial jurisdiction whereby military members and other Americans were exempt from punishment. Today’s Japan-U.S. SOFA is based on the same principle of immunity — in effect, SOFA protects U.S. troops and military-related personnel from being prosecuted under Japanese law.”
In response to public fury following the crimes in 1995 and 2016, the U.S. and Japan promised to make improvements to SOFA, but these changes turned out to be merely cosmetic. The U.S. said it would give “sympathetic consideration” when Japan requested the pre-indictment handover of service members suspected of heinous crimes (interpreted as rape or murder) and reduced the categories of contractors protected by SOFA.
Although SOFA applies throughout Japan, Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of the U.S. presence, suffers the most, explains Takazato, and it is women who repeatedly become the victims of these failures in military and Japanese justice.
Takazato’s assertion is supported by the NCIS Okinawa case files released via FOIA. The reports detail at least eight instances in which Japanese women were the victims of military sexual offenses between 2017 and 2019. Six of the suspects were Marines; one was a military contractor affiliated with the Marine Corps; and one, the perpetrator of the shopping mall exposure, was a sailor. Not only do these cases reveal U.S. service members’ continuing sexual violence against women in Okinawa, but they also highlight how the U.S. military and Japanese civilian judicial systems fail to provide justice for women sexually attacked by service members on the island.
In August 2017, just a year after the 2016 rape and murder prompted mass outcry, a Marine seized a woman’s mobile phone to lure her into an alleyway. He raped her, then told her to wash up using water from a puddle; she later explained to police that she thought she was going to be murdered. The victim filed a formal complaint with Okinawa police, and according to the NCIS case file, she was adamant that charges would be pressed. Nevertheless, when the case was referred to the Japanese prosecutor’s office, it declined to proceed.
The NCIS took control of the case and declined to hold the suspect in confinement during its investigation. Seven months after the alleged attack, the victim withdrew from participation.
The suspect, meanwhile, committed another sexual assault — this time against a female Marine in January 2018. He was tried at a general court-martial and found guilty of this offense and others, including attempted drug distribution, and received a three-year prison sentence and a dishonorable discharge. But he was not punished for the rape of the civilian.
In October 2017, a woman contacted the NCIS to file a complaint against a Marine who had choked and raped her. The base commander declined prosecution on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence. The case file does not mention whether Japanese police were informed of the incident.
In the spring of 2018, the NCIS investigated two on-base incidents. In February, a Marine touched a woman’s buttocks at a club on Camp Hansen. The incident was reported to the military police, but the victim told Okinawa police she did not wish to participate in an investigation; the base commander decided not to punish the suspect. The following month, a Marine sexually assaulted a woman during a concert at Camp Schwab. The NCIS identified the suspect, but he denied the accusations. Japanese prosecutors declined to prosecute, and the U.S. military decided not to take action either.
Autumn of 2018 saw two more assaults. In October, at an off-base establishment, a Marine pulled down a woman’s shirt to expose her breasts. The woman declined to participate in the investigation by the NCIS or Japanese police. As a result, the military charged the Marine with disobeying orders as well as drunk and disorderly conduct. Instead of facing a court-martial, he was allowed to leave the military without receiving any punishment. In November, a woman reported that she had been raped by a Marine at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. Japanese prosecutors ceded jurisdiction to the military, and following the NCIS investigation, the Marine received a warning for disorderly conduct, drunkenness, and indecent conduct — but he was permitted to stay in the military.
“When you look at these cases from an outsider’s perspective, it might seem the military justice system is failing — but from a military viewpoint, these cases show SOFA is working just fine,” said Fukurai. “For the military, this is what SOFA and extraterritoriality are designed to do — it is a system designed to protect American service members who break the law in Japan from being punished under Japanese law.”
Takazato said she was angered by the NCIS reports — but not surprised. “Okinawa is a paradise for U.S. service members wanting to sexually assault women. They have the mentality that they won’t be punished here, and they think Okinawan women don’t report sexual assaults,” she said.
“When you look at these cases from an outsider’s perspective, it might seem the military justice system is failing — but from a military viewpoint, these cases show SOFA is working just fine.”
Takazato asserts that some of the problem lies with the Japanese judicial system, which frequently blames the victims of sexual assaults. Takazato has accompanied victims of U.S. military violence to Japanese police stations where she saw for herself how officers rebuke women for where they had been or what clothes they had worn.
“When it comes to sexual crimes, this victim-blaming extends throughout the Japanese justice system. But it is even worse for victims of the U.S. military. Because the authorities prioritize Japan-U.S. relations over the rights of Okinawans, prosecutors decline cases where the accused is a U.S. service member,” said Takazato.
According to research by the Okinawan newspaper the Ryukyu Shimpo, Japanese prosecutors were significantly more reluctant to indict U.S. service members, contractors, and their dependents than members of the Japanese general public. Between 2007 and 2016, only 18 percent of military-affiliated suspects were indicted versus 41 percent of the public accused of crimes. The proportion of military suspects prosecuted dropped to 15 percent in 2020, according to the nongovernmental organization Japan Peace Committee.
One of the NCIS reports obtained via FOIA exemplifies how the U.S. military can shut down Japanese police investigations.
In April 2015, witnesses in Kin town reported a man wearing a Marine Corps uniform masturbating in a car near schools on two different days. Japanese police identified the owner of the vehicle as a Marine sergeant. Interviewed by Okinawa police and NCIS agents, he denied any involvement and attempted to provide an alibi — but it did not check out.
When Okinawa police tried to interview the sergeant again, he invoked his right to counsel, and then the Marine Corps Provost Marshal’s Office advised the police that the suspect would not answer any more of their questions. At this point, according to the NCIS report, Okinawa police decided to drop the case, and the suspect’s command also decided not to take any further action.
According to Marine Corps court-martial summaries, sex crimes targeting children are endemic among the Marines in Okinawa. Between January 2015 and December 2020, 69 Marines were convicted in Okinawa for sexual offenses involving minors, including possession and distribution of child sexual abuse images and actual or attempted sexual assault of a child. All of those found guilty received military prison sentences and bad conduct or dishonorable discharges. It is unclear how many of the cases involved Okinawan children or how many were, for example, military dependents.
Neither the U.S. Air Force nor the Army makes their own court-martial summaries readily accessible to the public, so it is difficult to ascertain the prevalence of sexual assault of children by members of the Air Force and soldiers in Okinawa. The Intercept has requested this data from United States Forces Japan — but it has not yet been provided.
Consistently, the U.S. military attempts to play down the levels of offenses committed by its service members in Okinawa. The Okinawa Marines’ homepage states that most of them are “law abiding, honorable and respectful” and claims: “According to the Okinawa Prefectural Police (OPP) the U.S. SOFA per capita crime rate is less than half the crime rate in Okinawa.”
Orientation lectures, given to new Marines arriving on the island, state, “U.S. crime is limited to 1% of all crimes on Okinawa (compared to 4% of the population).” Controversially, the lectures attribute military crimes to “gaijin [foreigner] power.” One lecture from February 2014, which I obtained via FOIA in 2016, states, “We get carried-away with our sudden ‘gaijin power’ (Charisma man effect) and tend to go over-board by doing things that is [sic] not acceptable to the majority in society.”
Okinawa is the poorest prefecture in Japan — it has the country’s highest unemployment rate, and 30 percent of Okinawan children live below the poverty line. Many Okinawan women work in the service industry, often in relatively unstable jobs. Hotel, bar, and restaurant staff frequently bear the brunt of military violence.
In January 2019, for example, a maid at a hotel within Kadena Air Base reported that an American civilian employee of Marine Corps Community Services had been masturbating while she cleaned his room. He had stood up, exposed his penis, and then, with what appeared to be semen on his fingers, asked her for a tissue. The NCIS tried to locate the suspect in Okinawa, but they could not find him because he had quit his on-base job and checked out of the hotel earlier than scheduled. The report makes no mention that Okinawa police were notified of the American employee’s harassment of the maid, and the NCIS closed the case without finding the suspect.
Takazato says the NCIS reports help fill in the picture of military sexual violence on her island, and she plans to add them to her ongoing chronology of crimes against women dating back to April 1945. The sexual offenses against women in Okinawa detailed in the reports are, of course, only a fraction of the actual tally of military crime on the island. The reports do not include investigations into offenses committed by soldiers and members of the U.S. Air Force nor do they take into account the number of victims who do not report their attacks.
But in the Marines’ perspective, as detailed in the orientation talks, Okinawans have “double standards,” and their dissatisfaction toward the U.S. military presence is “more emotional than logical.” After I reported on the lectures in 2016, there was widespread anger in the prefecture; the Marine Corps said it would review its contents.
A similar uproar occurred in 1995 when, commenting on the rape of the 12-year-old girl by three service members, Adm. Richard C. Macke, commander of the United States Pacific Command, said it would have cost less to visit a prostitute than hire the vehicle the rapists had used to abduct the child. He was forced to resign.
The U.S. military’s claims that offenses committed by service members are lower than the local population are flawed. They fail to note Japanese prosecutors’ low indictment rate of military personnel, and they are silent on offenses committed within the military, including rape and sexual assault.
United States Forces Japan has not yet explained whether it stands by such claims about its purported low crime rate nor has it provided more recent data.
“It pays to complain,” state the Marine orientation lectures. “Anywhere offense can be taken it will be used.”