TOKYO — An American military contractor has been arrested in Okinawa in connection with the murder of a local woman, a case that has reignited anti-US sentiment on the southern Japanese island and will cast a shadow over President Obama’s visit to Japan next week.
The alleged stabbing has already had significant political effects, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe saying Friday that he feels “strong resentment” over the case and his government summoning US ambassador Caroline Kennedy.
“This is going to have a massive impact on Okinawa. It’s the kind of crime that will evoke memories of 1995,” said Daniel Sneider, a Japan expert at Stanford University.
He was referring to the brutal incident in which three US servicemen abducted and raped a 12-year-old Okinawa girl, a case that became a lightning rod for anti-American sentiment on the island, which remains home to the majority of US military bases in Japan, 70 years after the end of World War II.
“I think it’s pretty clear that the US government is going to have to move very quickly to deal with this event. It will certainly be raised while the president is here,” Sneider said.
Obama is due to arrive this week for the G-7 summit, hosted by Japan, and will then make a historic visit to Hiroshima, the site of the devastating atomic bomb attack.
Okinawa police have arrested Kenneth Shinzato, a 32-year-old former US Marine Corps who was working as a computer and electrical contractor on the Kadena air base, in relation to the murder of 20-year-old Rina Shimabukuro.
Shimabukuro’s body was found in a forest in the village of Onna, near where Shinzato told police they would find her, according to local news reports. She appeared to have been stabbed, they said.
Shinzato, a civilian employee born Kenneth Franklin Gadson but who took his wife’s name when they got married, reportedly told police he dumped Shimabukuro’s body in a wooded area after she stopped moving. Shinzato also has been charged with abandoning a body.
Shimabukuro had last been heard of April 28, when she sent her boyfriend a message saying she was going for a walk.
Shinzato’s vehicle appeared in security camera footage from the area at the time the victim was last seen, and DNA tests showed his vehicle held some of her blood.
Multiple news reports said Shinzato, who lives near the base with his wife and baby, tried to commit suicide earlier this week.
While Shinzato was no longer a member of the US Marine Corps, he was employed as a contractor and was included in the Status of Forces Agreement that protects Americans working for the military in Japan.
The agreement stipulates that Japan cannot prosecute people affiliated with the United States for crimes committed during the course of their work. But even though this alleged murder would not be classified as work-related, it is already raising questions about why a person who has a civilian job would enjoy the protections of the deal in the first place.
The continued presence of American forces in Okinawa is already hugely controversial, with the governor, Takeshi Onaga, leading the charge to stop the construction of a new Marine air station on the island and force the current one to close down. There are regular protests against the American military there.
The conflict is a major thorn in the side of the government in Tokyo, which wants to press ahead with the construction as part of its security alliance with the United States.
Onaga told reporters in Okinawa that he felt “extreme sorrow” over the incident. “I don’t know what to do with this anger,” he said.
Dozens of people demonstrated in front of Camp Schwab, the site of the new Marine Corps air station, Friday. “The bases are the source of crime. We don’t need any bases,” Noriko Shido, a 66-year-old protester, told the Mainichi Shimbun.
In Tokyo, Prime Minister Abe held a special meeting of Okinawa-related ministers over the murder case. “I will urge the US side to make a rigorous response, such as the implementation of thorough preventive measures,” Abe said.
Separately, foreign minister Fumio Kishida called Kennedy to his office, and defense minister Gen Nakatani met with Lieutenant General John Dolan, the commander of the US forces in Japan, to lodge protests.
Obama is due in Japan this week and is scheduled to visit Hiroshima on May 27, a trip that is much anticipated in Japan.
Josh Earnest, the president’s spokesman, said the murder case was “a terrible tragedy and an outrage.”
“The United States is treating this situation with the utmost seriousness, and the United States military is cooperating fully with local authorities in their investigation,” he said Thursday.