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Series of Crimes Spark Renewed Anger Against US Troops in Japan

Relations between U.S. military personnel and Japanese communities that host military bases are growing emotional following a spate of crimes committed by U.S. servicemen. The incidents have prompted calls by Japan's opposition party for a re-evaluation of defense pacts, and have led U.S. commanders to clamp down on their troops. Naomi Martig reports from Hong Kong.

In early April, Japanese authorities arrested a U.S. sailor on charges of killing and robbing a taxi driver near Tokyo. The serviceman had deserted from the U.S. Yokosuka Naval Base.

Before that, in February, U.S. military police on the island of Okinawa took a Marine into custody following allegations that he raped a Japanese teenager. The girl's family decided not to press charges, but the Marine faces a possible court martial.

And next month the military plans to court-martial four Marines accused of gang-raping a woman in the western Japanese city of Hiroshima.

Each incident has inflamed emotions in the Japanese communities around U.S. bases, and has renewed an old debate about how to keep U.S. troops in line.

More than 47,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Japan, about half of them on Okinawa, Japan's smallest prefecture. Residents there are especially sensitive to the latest incidents, because it brings back memories of a 1995 case, when three U.S. servicemen kidnapped and raped a 12-year-old Okinawan schoolgirl.

That prompted large anti-base protests and strained U.S.-Japan relations.

Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Powell is the Marine spokesman on Okinawa. He says although the crime rate among U.S. Marines is far lower than that of the general population, the military is fully responsible for any crime committed by its troops.

"We are guests here in Japan," he said. "Even though we as U.S. military here in Japan have very low crime rate, half that of the local population, still we are guests here and one incident is one too many."

Powell says that in 2007 around one percent of all crimes on Okinawa were committed by U.S. personnel, who make up about three percent of the prefecture's population.

The crime rate for the military on Okinawa has declined in recent years. The Okinawa Prefectural Police say the number of arrests for felonies or serious misdemeanors by troops and their dependents fell to 46 in 2006 from 133 in 2003.

But to improve relations with Okinawans and to reduce the chances of new problems, after this latest rape allegation the military imposed a sweeping curfew on service members, civilian employees and family members. The military also restricted alcohol purchases. The restrictions were eased after two weeks, but servicemen are still subject to a night-time curfew.

Powell says U.S. commanders and Okinawa officials are discussing other ways to reduce problems, such as joint police patrols in bar districts.

But for some people who live near bases, such as Suzuyo Takazato, those measures are not enough. Takazato is a co-founder of the Okinawa Women's Act Against Military Violence. She says residents of Okinawa think U.S. and Japanese officials have let them down, especially after this latest incident.

She says apologies by U.S. officials, including one in February by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, are appreciated. But she says they do not solve the problem. What would solve the problem, she says, is for the U.S. military to leave Okinawa.

"We feel always they promise that they are so respectful and that they will train, they will discipline their soldiers, but it's really repeatedly it's happening, we don't see the new solution," she said.

However, many people on Okinawa are hesitant to call for closing the bases, because of the jobs they create for residents of one of Japan's poorest areas.

The larger issue for U.S. and Japanese officials is whether these incidents will affect defense ties.

The outcry after the 1995 rape case was a factor in negotiations between the two countries that led to a decision to move about 8,000 Marines from Okinawa by 2012.

Brandon Taylor is a lecturer at the Strategic and Defense Study Center at Australian National University. He says the outcry could intensify if U.S. crimes are not brought under control. But he says it is unlikely to affect U.S. and Japanese defense relations because of regional security issues.

"There's a great degree of apprehension regarding the North Korean nuclear problem and more broadly the prospect of a unified Korea in the future," he said. "And I think that the U.S. alliance is seen as pretty critical to Japan in terms of countering those perceived threats."

Taylor says Japanese policy makers could be pressured into changing the defense relationship only if domestic anger increases to a point of social instability.

"It remains to be seen, I suppose, whether the protests will continue at the domestic level and that will be the difficulty, I suppose, for the Japanese government - (it) will be to play that little game of balancing that domestic pressure with pressures of the alliance," Taylor said.

Opposition parties, which control the upper house of parliament, have petitioned to revise the pact that governs the status of U.S. forces in Japan.

Under the agreement, military suspects do not have to be handed over to local authorities until charged by Japanese prosecutors. After the 1995 rape, Washington agreed to consider handing over suspects in serious cases even if they have not been charged. But the agreement has never actually been changed. Officials in Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's government, however, say the agreement does not need to be changed.