US Air Force member’s arrest for kidnap and rape of Japanese schoolgirl raises tensions in Okinawa

People protest against a visit by US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel, near a military post of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force on Ishigaki Island (Kyodo News)
People protest against a visit by US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel, near a military post of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force on Ishigaki Island (Kyodo News)

A member of the United States Air Force has been charged by Japanese prosecutors with kidnapping and raping a schoolgirl in Okinawa. Police say the attack took place just before Christmas last year.

Brennon Washington, 25, was charged on March 27 with “non-consensual sexual intercourse” and “indecent kidnapping,” a court spokesperson in Naha, Okinawa’s capital, told CNN. They said the US military handed the service member to Japanese authorities the same day. His trial is set to begin on July 12.

An indictment seen by The Guardian claims the man had invited the girl to speak to him in his car at a park and drove her to his home before the incident. Investigators said a person known to the girl, who is said to be aged between 13 and 15, reported the incident on the day it occurred.

Washington was released on bail and taken in to custody at the US’s Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, a government spokesperson told CNN.

It’s only the latest source of tension in Okinawa. Residents have long expressed resistance to the presence of US tiltrotor military aircraft on the island. There is also long-standing opposition to the heavy presence of US troops. Around half of the 50,000 American service personnel in Japan are stationed in Okinawa, where the US has retained its bases since World War Two.

The serviceman is stationed with the 18 Logistics Readiness Squadron at Kadena. An 18th Wing spokesperson told CNN: “The 18th Wing is aware of a sexual assault allegation against a Kadena airman involving a Japanese citizen. We understand and share the local community’s concerns regarding this case.”

The spokesperson said the Wing leadership was “deeply concerned by the severity of this alleged crime,” and has been working with local authorities while they investigate the allegations.

“All US service members are expected to uphold the highest standards, and the US military is committed to holding accountable those who are convicted of criminal acts,” they said.

The incident has seen resistance against the American troop presence rise still further. Okinawa governor Denny Tamaki told reporters on Tuesday that the rape and kidnap allegations were “extremely regrettable,” adding that it was necessary “to strongly protest against the US military and other related organizations.”

His office will be taking “a tough stance in dealing with the situation,” he said. Tamaki was also reported as saying that the accusations against Washington also “brought a significant level of distrust,” describing the allegations to Kyoto News as “not just disturbing to prefectural residents but also a violation of the girl’s dignity.”

Yoshimasa Hayashi, a government spokesperson, said Japan “will continue to request the US side to prevent such incidents at every opportunity,” according to The Guardian.

The indictment comes almost 30 years after a 12-year-old schoolgirl was raped by three US servicemen in 1995, a crime which saw local opposition against the US military flare up.

Tens of thousands of Okinawa residents also lined their capital’s streets in 2016 following the killing of a 20-year-old local woman. An American contractor at a military based was charged, and locals demanded that the US military leave the island.

More recently, tensions have risen over the use of Osprey aircraft in the region. These increased in November last year, after an Osprey crashed into the sea off Okinawa, killing eight. As a result, Tamaki urged the US to suspend all Osprey flights in Japan.