Vice President Al Gore stepped off Air Force Two on Saturday and into a political maelstrom caused by a U.S. admiral’s insensitive remarks about the abduction and rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl.
The crime, allegedly committed by three American serviceman, has inflamed passions in Japan against the U.S. military presence on Okinawa and strained Washington’s relations with Tokyo.
Adm. Richard C. Macke, commander of all U.S. military operations in the Pacific, agreed to early retirement Friday, hours after saying the servicemen should have hired a prostitute instead.
“I think that it was absolutely stupid, I’ve said several times,” Macke, 57, said during a breakfast interview with defense writers. “For the price they paid to rent the car they could have had a girl.”
In Osaka, where Japan is hosting a Pacific Rim trade summit, U.S. Ambassador Walter Mondale issued a swift apology - but the damage was done. Okinawans and women’s activists were outraged, and even normally circumspect Japanese government officials were incredulous.
“I absolutely cannot believe this statement,” Foreign Minister Yohei Kono told reporters.
Chief Foreign Ministry spokesman Hiroshi Hashimoto said Mondale had met with Kono and explained that the admiral’s comment “doesn’t reflect the Clinton administration’s position.”
“I hope the Okinawans will understand that,” Hashimoto said.
They didn’t. Fumiko Maeda, head of the Okinawa chapter of a national women’s group, said Macke’s statement trivialized the brutality of the attack and degraded Japanese women.
“The remarks are unforgivable,” she said. “Each time we have swallowed our anger and sorrow, but we can’t stand it any more.”
“Macke insulted all of us women and the Japanese,” echoed women’s rights activist Noriko Yamaguchi.
Others questioned whether the comments reflected a larger pattern.
Suzuyo Takazato, a city assemblywoman in Naha, the Okinawan capital, said Macke’s remarks show that the rape was “not just a problem caused by the three accused servicemen, but a fundamental problem involving the U.S. military.”
“Women in Okinawa are forced to constantly live with a threat from the American servicemen around us who see women only as objects,” Takazato said.
Among the people meeting Gore’s plane was Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota, who has called the U.S. military “uninvited guests” and is refusing to force landowners to renew base leases.
Gore, in an arrival statement, called the U.S.-Japanese partnership “a cornerstone for peace and prosperity in Asia and the world.”
The vice president, filling in at the summit because President Clinton was kept home by the budget standoff, will meet with Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama on Sunday. The U.S. military presence in Japan is to be among the matters discussed.