Japanese prosecutors have charged two American military members with sexual assaults in two separate incidents in a five-month span, sparking a protest from the Japanese government.

A U.S. Air Force member was indicted in March for allegedly kidnapping and sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl on Christmas Eve. A U.S. Marine was charged in June with nonconsensual sex resulting in injury for allegedly attempting to sexually assault a woman in May, according to media reports.

Although both the Marine and airmen have been identified in media reports, U.S. officials declined to confirm their names to Task & Purpose on Tuesday.

The Japanese government issued a protest to the U.S. embassy in Tokyo after the Marine was arrested, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi told reporters on June 28.

Japan’s Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Okano Masataka has expressed his regrets to U.S. Ambassador Rahm Emanuel over the cases and asked the U.S. government to improve military discipline and take other measures to make sure such incidents do not happen again, Hayashi said at a news conference.

A U.S. Pacific Air Forces spokesperson confirmed that an airman stationed at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa had been accused of sexual assault. The airman is assigned to the 18th Wing.

“Due to the ongoing investigation, we cannot offer further details,” said the spokesperson, who referred specific questions about the case to the Okinawa Prefecture Police Department, which is leading the investigation. “The 18th Wing is committed to investigating the allegations thoroughly and has been cooperating with local authorities while ensuring due legal process under applicable laws and agreements.”

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A III Marine Expeditionary Force spokesperson also confirmed that an Okinawa-based Marine has been indicted by local authorities, adding that Corps officials are cooperating with the ongoing legal process.

“The Marine Corps goes to great lengths to instill these values in every Marine through regular education and training throughout their service,” the spokesperson said.

Both Air Force and Marine Corps officials said the alleged behavior of the two U.S. service members on Okinawa does not reflect the value of the US military or the conduct of the majority of American troops in Japan.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is closely following both sexual assault cases, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman.

“We are closely working with the local communities to address their concerns regarding these cases,” Ryder said at a Pentagon news briefing on Tuesday. “We are deeply troubled by the severity of the allegations, and we regret the anxiety this has caused.”

Japan is one of the United States’ closest allies, so military officials are doing everything they can to keep the lines of communication between both countries open, Ryder said.

“The respective units are working diligently with local authorities to investigate the allegations thoroughly, while also ensuring due legal process under applicable laws and agreements,” Ryder said.

The U.S. military fought a bloody battle for Okinawa in 1945. The island fell under U.S. control until 1972, when it was officially returned to Japan. Thousands of U.S. troops have remained on Okinawa due to its strategic location in the Pacific.

U.S. military bases take up about 15% of Okinawa’s land area. In order to ease the burden on the island, the U.S military plans to transfer about 4,000 of the roughly 19,000 Marines on Okinawa to Guam by 2028.

“A small detachment of Logistics Marines will move to Guam around the end of 2024 as part of the Defense Policy Review Initiative (DPRI),” a Marine Corps spokesperson told Task & Purpose. “This commencement of force flow honors a concurrence with the Government of Japan and secures a U.S. Marine Corps posture in the Indo-Pacific region that is more geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable. The United States Marine Corps remains committed to working closely with the Government of Japan and Guam as DPRI relocations progress.”

The American military presence on Okinawa has caused tension with the local population, which has been exacerbated by past cases of U.S. troops conducting crimes. In September 1995, a sailor and Marines took part in kidnapping and raping a 12-year-old Okinawan girl. All later served terms in Japanese prison.

The commander of U.S. Pacific Command at the time was forced to step down after telling reporters that the three service members could have hired a prostitute instead of raping the girl.

Going back decades, U.S. military bases in Okinawa have historically had problems with sexual harassment, assault, substance abuse, and other misconduct, said former Marine Maj. Kyleanne Hunter, of the RAND Corporation.

“There’s some hypotheses about why and what drives it: One, being isolated,” Hunter told Task & Purpose. “Anywhere where service members are more isolated – they’re away from more familial supports – that we see, just unfortunately, a larger instance of bad behaviors occurring.”

When U.S. troops stationed overseas are accused of sexual assault, it can create strategic problems for the U.S. government, such as affecting status of forces agreements,said Hunter, director of the RAND National Security Research Division’s Women, Peace, and Security Initiative.

The American service members who are deployed to Japan and elsewhere are there at the grace of their host countries, Hunter said.

A major component of the U.S. alliance with Japan as well as other countries is a shared value of human rights and democratic norms, all of which can be undermined when American troops cannot act appropriately with local civilians or other service members, she said.

“Sexual assault is the easiest way to break trust in the benefit of having U.S. service members there,” Hunter said. “We as the U.S. make an argument that having U.S. basing there is a benefit and is going to result in the overall safety and security of the host country. And in instances like this, where the actual human security of individuals is often undermined, it starts to raise real questions: Is the U.S. a real ally?”

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