The latest alleged crime committed by American servicemen in Japan threatens to ignite escalated protests on the southern island of Okinawa against the U.S. military presence there.
There has been an immediate diplomatic outburst following the detention of two U.S. Navy sailors on Okinawa. A Japanese woman in her 20s says she was sexually assaulted by the men as she walked home early Tuesday.
The sailors, both 23 years of age, have been identified as Seaman Christopher Browning and Petty Officer 3rd Class Skyler Dozierwalker from the Fort Worth Naval Air Base in Texas.
Authorities say they arrived in Japan on Sunday and had been scheduled to leave on the same day the reported attack took place. Local police quote Dozierwalker as admitting to the accusation while his fellow sailor denies involvement in the assault.
During a meeting Wednesday in Tokyo with Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto, the governor of Okinawa, Hirokazu Nakaima, called the alleged rape an unforgivable act.
Nakaima says he is angry and that American forces need to sternly respond rather than merely promising to enforce stricter discipline. He laments this latest incident comes just two months after a U.S. Marine on Okinawa was arrested for allegedly molesting a woman.
The Pentagon and the U.S. Embassy have promised full cooperation with Japanese authorities into the latest rape case.
The Okinawa governor has been increasing his criticism of the U.S. military presence in the island chain, which hosts about half of the 47,000 military personnel in Japan.
Earlier this month, over the objections of the governor and many Okinawans, the United States and Japan agreed to the controversial deployment of a dozen tilt-wing rotor aircraft at a Marine Corps base located in a dense urban area.
Prior to apologizing personally to the Okinawa governor, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, John Roos, told reporters he does "understand the anger that many people feel."
"We, as we have always done in the past, work our hearts out to earn the trust of the Okinawan people and the people of Japan as a whole," said Roos.
Crimes committed by American military personnel in Japan and Korea over the years have had significant political and diplomatic ramifications.
In 1995, after three servicemen on Okinawa were arrested for the rape and abduction of a 12-year-old girl, tens of thousands of Japanese joined street demonstrations. That prompted the United States and Japan to begin serious discussions about scaling back the military presence on the island.
Similar demonstrations occurred in Korea in 2002 after a 57-ton armored vehicle during a training exercise ran over two schoolgirls. A court martial which found two U.S. soldiers not guilty of negligent homicide, furthered inflamed emotions among Koreans.
The United States has more than 29,000 military personnel in Korea.