TOKYO — Weary of rules limiting the freedom of their "overwhelmingly outstanding" sailors, the top commanders of the U.S. Navy in Japan eased after-hours restrictions this month. Just four days later, two sailors were accused of rape on Okinawa, a small island that has long had a tense relationship with the large American force stationed there.
Now, in his first comments since the incident, one of the commanders has told The Associated Press the policy change is under review. But he also stands by his assessment that the U.S. troops under his watch display "exceptionally high standards of professional and personal conduct."
The Navy says the policy change played no role in the alleged attack on a woman outside her apartment building. But the U.S. ambassador immediately apologized, and the head of all 52,000 U.S. troops in Japan announced a new curfew for them as the case sparked intense anger on Okinawa and a brought a sharp rebuke from the Japanese government.
The uproar has deepened a dilemma nagging the U.S. military for years: It wants to improve relations on Okinawa, home to most of its Japan-based force and one of America's most important Pacific military outposts, but it also wants to be fair to its sailors. Many Okinawans believe the troops cannot be trusted to behave themselves off-base despite falling crime rates, and many sailors believe they are being unfairly judged because of a few notorious cases.
Less than a week before the rape was reported, 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Scott Swift and Rear Adm. Dan Cloyd, commander of U.S. Naval Forces, Japan, issued a memorandum ending the nearly decade-old "liberty card" program, which regulated off-hours activities by sailors in Japan.
They said the program treated sailors of lower rank "as if they are expected to engage in misconduct," when in fact very few sailors "have difficulty adhering to minimum standards of conduct."
"The decision to cancel the liberty card program is in recognition that the vast majority of our sailors are overwhelmingly outstanding," the commanders said in the Oct. 12 memo, adding that lower-level leaders would be able to keep the small number of potential troublemakers in line.
The alleged rape was reported Oct. 16. In a statement Tuesday to The Associated Press, Cloyd stood by the assessment he made in the memo.
"The vast majority of our sailors have demonstrated overwhelmingly outstanding behavior while serving and living in Japan," he said in the statement, his first public comment since the incident. "We continually focus on training that reinforces the exceptionally high standards of professional and personal conduct of all service members here in Japan and throughout the world."
Following last week's rape allegation, Lt. Gen. Salvatore Angelella, the commander of U.S. forces in Japan, announced that all U.S. military personnel in the country are subject to a curfew from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. and will have to take "core values training."
Cloyd said the Navy is also reviewing its liberty policies. But Cmdr. Kenneth Marshall, a spokesman for the Commander U.S. Naval Forces, Japan, told The AP the loosening of the liberty card policy would not have affected the suspects because their squadron was still enforcing it — an option that the top commanders left open to the lower-level leadership.
"This is really about the investigation of a violent crime: If these reports are substantiated, these actions are a complete disregard of the personal moral and ethical standards that the U.S. expects of service members," he said.
Okinawan police allege Seaman Christopher Browning of Athens, Texas, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Skyler Dozierwalker of Muskogee, Okla., raped and robbed a local woman in her 20s last week outside her apartment building. The sailors, both 23, were temporarily deployed to Japan with their unit, the VR-59 reserve air detachment based at Joint Naval Air Station, Fort Worth, Texas.
According to police, the two arrived in Okinawa two days earlier on a brief stopover and were staying in an off-base hotel. They were reportedly drinking before the alleged rape took place, between 3 and 4 a.m. They are now in Japanese custody awaiting trial.
The U.S. military has an outsized presence in Okinawa, which was a major battlefield during World War II and a U.S.-administered territory until 1972. The prefecture (state) of 1.4 million hosts about 28,000 U.S. troops — mostly Marines and Air Force personnel, with smaller contingents of sailors and soldiers. U.S. bases occupy nearly 20 percent of Okinawa's main island.
Anger on Okinawa was already rising because of the military's decision to deploy the Marines' MV-22 Osprey hybrid aircraft to a base there last month, despite local opposition over safety concerns after two recent crashes elsewhere. Tens of thousands of protesters held the largest rally in years to oppose the deployment.
But crime has long been the most sensitive trigger to anti-U.S. military emotions on Okinawa.
The rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by two Marines and a sailor in 1995 sparked a huge outcry there. It led to a broad review of military regulations and an agreement to reduce the military footprint on Okinawa, including a plan to move about 9,000 Marines off Okinawa to the U.S. territory of Guam or other Pacific locations. The plan has not yet been implemented.
Over the past decade, base-related crime on Okinawa has generally been decreasing.
According to statistics released by the Okinawan government, the number of felonious crimes — murders, rapes, arsons or violent robbery — committed by service members or their dependents on Okinawa dropped from 13 in 2008 to four last year, and the overall number of crimes has dropped by about 50 percent since 2003 and remained fairly stable.
Takuya Kobashigawa, of the Okinawa prefecture's base relations department, said U.S. troops or their dependents account for about 1 percent of all crime on Okinawa. He said there had been two sexual assaults on Okinawa by U.S. personnel over the past three years and no rapes since 2008, when there were four cases.
The downtick in overall crime, however, has done little to change Okinawan perceptions.
"The preventative measures currently taken by the U.S. military and its efforts to educate its personnel can only be called dysfunctional, and we are outraged," Okinawa's prefectural assembly said in a resolution adopted Monday. "The repeat of this kind of incident tries the patience of the Okinawan people beyond their limits, and has generated calls for all U.S. bases to be removed from our prefecture."