Tokyo furious after US sailor arrested on suspicion of raping Japanese tourist in Okinawa

FILE PHOTO © Kyodo
Tokyo has launched an official protest with Washington after a US sailor was arrested on suspicion of raping a Japanese tourist in Okinawa. The incident is likely to complicate plans to build a controversial new US airbase on the island.

Justin Castellanos, who was based at the US Navy’s Camp Schwab, is alleged to have raped a woman in her 40s at a hotel in Naha in the south of Okinawa.

“It was extremely regrettable that this case happened,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference, as cited by Kyodo news agency. The Japanese government has demanded that Washington “tighten discipline and prevent a recurrence of such incidents,” Suga added.

Suga said that US officials are taking the allegations seriously, but also mentioned it would be “regrettable” if the 24-year-old US sailor was found guilty.

Local police in Naha arrested Castellanos on Sunday on suspicion of taking a Japanese woman into his hotel room and raping her. However, the US sailor denies the charges, saying he found the woman sleeping in the corridor and took her to his room.

The governor of Owinawa, Takeshi Onaga, confirmed the incident had taken place.

“It was a serious crime in violation of women’s human rights and can never be tolerated,” Onaga said, according to Kyodo. “I feel strong resentment.”

He also added that the incident could have an effect on tourism to the region, which is “a major industry for the prefecture.”

Onaga has been bitterly against plans to relocate a US airbase in Futenma to the Henoko area of Nago on the island. This is largely down to tension between the local population and US servicemen, which dates back to a crime committed in 1995, when three US marines kidnapped and raped a 12-year-old schoolgirl.

There have also been less-publicized sex crime cases involving underage victims reported in 2001 and 2005, the fatal running over of a female high school student by a drunken US marine in 1998, and other incidents.

The Japanese prime minister suspended construction work on a new US airbase on March 4, saying that further dialogue with the Okinawa authorities, who are against the plan, needed to take place.

"The government has decided to accept the court-mediated settlement plan," Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said.

The settlement plan was agreed with the Okinawa prefectural government and concerned landfill work, which needed to take place in order for the US military base to be built.

The US and Japan say the current US Marines’ Futenma airbase needs to be relocated to a less populated part of the island, but Onaga is adamant it will not be built in his prefecture.

Japan’s Defense Ministry had ordered work on the reclamation project to restart in October, after Governor Onaga revoked permission for the construction.

However, this led to mass protests across the country. In February, thousands of demonstrators encircled Japan’s parliament in Tokyo to protest against the relocation. Over 28,000 people joined the rally, according to the Kyodo news agency. Opposition rallies were also held in the cities of Toyama, Okayama, Sapporo, Nagoya and Osaka.

“The central government is trying to force through landfill work to move the base to Henoko, but justice and righteousness are on our side,” Nago Mayor Susume Inamine said at the rally in Tokyo, according to the Japan Times.

The previous Okinawa governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, gave the green light for the relocation of the base in 2013. However, after Onaga won the elections in 2014, he promised to oppose the plan – to the delight of the majority of locals.

Okinawa, home to about one percent of Japan’s population, hosts nearly half the 47,000 US troops based in Japan.