Big Trouble in Little Okinawa: “Suitcase Murder” Underscores Tensions with Continuing U.S. Troop Presence

Protesters shouting slogans at a rally against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration, March 22, 2015.

The horrific details sound eerily similar to those of the night stalker who prowled the fog-filled streets of Victorian London seeking female prey.  But this gruesome murder is NOT from over a century ago and it  does NOT involve Jack the Ripper as the perpetrator.  It happened less than two months ago and involves an American citizen stationed on foreign soil as a military contractor at the behest of the U.S. Government.

The chief suspect in the ghastly rape and murder of 20 year-old Rina Shimabukuro, who went missing on April 28th, is  ex-U.S. Marine Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, 32, (who took his Japanese wife’s family name.)   Shinzato  allegedly drove around the streets of Okinawa, the prefecture which hosts the largest contingent of U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan, for several hours looking for a potential victim.  He allegedly found Ms. Shimabukuro, an office worker, in Uruma City sometime in the evening when she was taking a solitary stroll, dragged her into his car, sexually assaulted her in a grassy area, stabbed and strangled her, and then deposited her body in a suitcase before dumping it in the woods.  The Japan Times has reported that “police have found blood and DNA matching the victim’s in Shinzato’s car.”   (

VOA noted that Shinzato was arrested after “he told investigators where they could find the woman’s body in a forest.” (  The Daily Beast  recently published a thorough account on the details of the case. (

The people of Okinawa, needless to say, are incensed, with increasing calls for the removal of all U.S. military personnel from the island.  On May 26th the Okinawan Prefectural Assembly approved for the first time a resolution demanding that all U.S. Marines leave the island.  (The relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Futemna, a highly urbanized area of Okinawa, has been a subject of negotiations — and a thorn in the side of both Tokyo and Washington — for more than two decades.  While I served on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee staff, I participated in two separate staff delegation visits to Okinawa to determine if any progress had been made on the base relocation issue — there was precious little.)

It should be noted that Congressional staff delegations visiting Okinawa confirmed what was already apparent: that the overwhelming majority of U.S. military personnel and their dependents stationed in Okinawa are law-abiding and upstanding representatives of the United States.   These U.S. personnel also reportedly have a significantly lower crime rate than the Okinawan populace as a whole.

So, why should Americans be particularly concerned about a murder that, while admittedly horrific, occurred half the world away?  There are a number of factors.

First and foremost, this involves the complex issue of hosting foreign bases, which continues to percolate, at times below the surface and at other times boiling over, at the core of  an alliance once deemed by the late Ambassador Mike Mansfield as “the most important bilateral relationship in the world.” (This is likely no longer the case.)   According to the Okinawa Prefectural Government, 74 percent of the U.S. military stationed in Japan are located in Okinawa. (about 25,000 military, 2,000 contractors and another 20,000 dependents.)  This is partially due to a unique set of historic circumstances.  The climatic battle of the Second World War in the Pacific took place in and around Okinawa from April to June 1945.  (I have heard personal reflections on this battle from my 90 year-old Jesuit priest cousin who was a 19 year-old Marine at the time.)  There were an estimated over 100,000 Japanese casualties and 50,000 Allied casualties.  As a result, Okinawa remained under “U.S. administrative control” for 27 years, until 1972, when sovereignty reverted to Japan.  So the U.S. base issue has been a focus of local popular attention for almost three quarters of a century.

Second, there have been inevitable resulting tensions, as with any foreign forces stationed within the borders of another country.  Before the present crisis,  the period of greatest tension occurred around American Labor Day, September 4, 1995, when three active duty U.S. servicemen rented a van, and abducted and raped a 12 year-old Okinawan girl.  This led to the largest anti-U.S. base demonstrations in the history of Okinawa up to that point.

Third, what is not widely known is that the 1995 Okinawa Rape Incident is connected  to a hallmark moment for one of the two candidates in the current U.S. presidential campaign .  During that Labor Day weekend in 1995 I was very preoccupied at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing as the designated U.S. Embassy coordinator for the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, then underway in the Chinese capital.   One can imagine the overwhelming dismay felt by those of us serving at the embassy when a cable arrived from the U.S. Consulate in Naha, Okinawa, detailing the particulars of the assault.  Then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and her delegation had just touched down in Beijing when the distressing news arrived and we had to inform the First Lady’s staff as she was preparing to deliver an address to the women’s conference the VERY NEXT DAY — September 5th.  It was there that she uttered the historic words “women’s rights are human rights” which have now become a recurring theme in the Clinton presidential campaign.  We at the embassy waited on pins and needles to see if any of the delegates would respond to the then First Lady’s remarks with an accusation of “American hypocrisy” due to the recent events in Okinawa.  The Chinese, as hosts, were silent and the always polite Japanese were as well, despite what they might have been inwardly thinking.  Even the usual rogues gallery of America’s foes remained silent as the First Lady drew warm applause.  The rape incident became publicly known the next day, September 6th, when U.S. authorities took the three suspects into custody prior to turning them over to  Japanese custody on September 29th in accordance with existing SOFA procedures.  Thus, the Okinawa moment in Beijing came and went without causing embarrassment.

Fourth, this incident has occurred at a time of renewed debate over the desirability of a continued forward deployment of U.S. forces in Japan.  At the end of the Cold War, over two decades ago, many saw the collapse of the Soviet Union, then the main potential threat in Northeast Asia, as providing a peace dividend via possible U.S. troop reductions.  A 1995-96 cross-Strait crisis involving mainland China threatening Taiwan, literally on Okinawa’s doorstep, however,  led to a rapid re-evaluation.

U.S. forces further demonstrated the desirability of their continued presence to those on the Japanese mainland via the Operation Tomodachi  disaster relief efforts following the devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant meltdown of 2011 in Fukushima.  A major disconnect, however, involves the estrangement of the people of Okinawa, based on a cultural and linguistic diversity, from mainland Japanese.   This heralds back to a time, less than two centuries ago, when Okinawa, together with  the other Ryukyu Islands, formed its own kingdom separate from Japan.  Operation Tomodachi, thus, was seen as being of benefit primarily to mainland Japanese rather than to Okinawans.  Okinawans seemed at times to feel that they were left holding the bag for hosting the vast majority of U.S. forces without reaping the benefits.

The resulting public disagreements between anti-base Okinawan politicians and pro-alliance Tokyo politicians have made a resolution of the U.S. base relocation issue extremely difficult.  The deadlock even resulted, to my surprise when I visited Okinawa, in the appointment by the Japanese Foreign Ministry of a “special ambassador”  to Okinawa, resident in Naha  at the time.  It was as if the U.S. had appointed a “special ambassador” to Hawaii (which was also, less than two hundred years ago, a separate kingdom.)  Thus, the dynamics of the Washington-Tokyo-Naha axis on the base issue spills over into even summit diplomacy.  According to CNN, President Obama recently expressed “his sincerest condolences and deepest regrets” for the Okinawa murder “after a strong statement of protest by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe” during  the recent  G-7 summit in Japan.  (   Abe, a pro-U.S. base defense hawk whose policies are reportedly wildly unpopular in Okinawa, was apparently attempting to shore up his weakest link at President Obama’s expense.

And yet there has been even more trouble of late on Okinawa.  The Washington Post  reported on June 6th  that “The U.S. Navy on Monday banned its sailors on the Japanese island of Okinawa from drinking alcohol, both on and off base, and placed tight restrictions on their movement after a sailor was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving…The latest incident is likely to further inflame local anger over the U.S. military presence on the island, which shoulders the overwhelming burden of the U.S.-Japan military alliance.”  (  Two local civilians were injured in the traffic accident caused by the DUI.

The Japanese government has reportedly reached the point where it is even considering seeking a revision of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the United States which was negotiated in 1960.   And, even as increasingly aggressive Chinese posturing in the East and South China Seas and a nuclear armed and threatening North Korea make the forward deployment of U.S. forces on Okinawa seem more justifiable than ever, candidate Trump has raised further questions.  He has challenged  the cost effectiveness of stationing the U.S. military in Northeast Asia (even though Tokyo and Seoul pay a considerable portion of those costs.)   Trump has even voiced doubts about Mike Mansfield’s sancrosanct alliance with Japan.  In this regard, the big trouble on little Okinawa could add fuel to Trump’s anti-alliance rhetoric.  The suitcase murder on Okinawa could not have occurred  at a more critical juncture.

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