Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe publicly chastised President Barack Obama on Wednesday for the alleged rape and murder of a young Okinawan woman by a Marine veteran that has re-ignited protests on the island against the American military presence there.
“This case shocked all of Japan,” Abe said with Obama at his side for a news conference following private bilateral talks at which the alleged homicide by former Marine Kenneth Franklin Shinzato topped the agenda.
“At the onset of our small group discussion, I have firmly lodged a protest against President Obama as the Japanese Prime minister with regard to the most recent case in Okinawa," Abe said through an interpreter.
"I feel profound resentment for this self-centered and despicable crime,” Abe said, according to the White House pool report.
In response, Obama said, “I extended my sincere condolences and deepest regrets” for “the tragedy that took place in Okinawa” and resulted in the death of 20-year-old Rina Shimabukuro, whose body was found in a wooded area near the Kadena Air Force Base where Franklin Shinzato was a civilian employe.
"The US will continue to cooperate fully with the investigation," Obama said. "This has shaken up people in Okinawa as well as people throughout Japan. We consider it inexcusable and we are committed to do everything we can to prevent any crime of this sort."
Obama’s remarks echoed those of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter last Saturday in a phone call to his Japanese counterpart, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani, in which Carter also pledged action to prevent crimes associated with the presence of U.S. bases and personnel in Japan.
Neither Carter nor Obama have as yet spelled out what steps might be taken. However, Japanese Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the chief government spokesman, said earlier this week that Abe expected the U.S. to take “strict measures” against U.S. service members and civilian employees working at American military bases in Japan.
Abe’s unusually candid public remarks on the incident followed private meetings with Obama and a U.S. delegation that included Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes. Kennedy was expected to visit Okinawa soon to highlight the U.S. concern.
About half of the more than 50,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan are based in Okinawa, where Shimabukuro’s death has renewed protests against the U.S. presence.
The immediate issue for both Obama and Abe was the potential impact of the crime on the long-delayed plan to move the Marine Air Station at Futenma on the island to a less-populated area in the Henoko district. Japan has also pledged $3 billion for the proposed shift of about 10,000 of the Marines on Okinawa to Guam.
Abe said that the murder on Okinawa put those moves in doubt. When it comes to "proceeding with the realignment of U.S. forces," Japan "will not be able to make progress" against the rising anti-American sentiments of the Japanese people, Abe said.
"There is a tough and challenging road ahead of us as we seek to regain confidence which was lost in the most recent case," Abe said.
Shimabukuro, an office worker from the Okinawan city of Uruma, went missing on April 28 after leaving a message for her boyfriend saying that she was going for a walk.
Last Thursday, 32-year-old Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, a former Marine who had been stationed on Okinawa and now was working as a civilian employe at Kadena, was arrested on suspicion of raping the woman before strangling and stabbing her to death. The suspect reportedly served in the Marines from 2007-2014 as Kenneth Franklin and then married a Japanese woman named Shinzato.
Abe’s protest overshadowed the G7 (Group of Seven) economic summit in Japan attended by Obama and other world leaders. During his stay in Japan, Obama will also become the first sitting U.S president to visit Hiroshima, site of the atomic bombing on Aug. 6, 1945.
"Our visit to Hiroshima will honor all those who were lost in World War II and re-affirm our shared vision toward a world without nuclear weapon," Obama said.
White House officials have said that Obama will not make an apology for the bombing.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.