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Beating death of woman increases Japanese indignation over U.S. presence

YOKOSUKA, Japan—A closed-circuit security camera caught the early morning scene as an American sailor from the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk approached a Japanese woman who was walking to her job in this city near the entrance to Tokyo Bay.

The inebriated sailor grabbed her and asked her for taxi fare.

Hours later, the sailor turned up at his work site with bloodstains on his clothes. Police later found the badly beaten body of Yoshie Sato. Money was missing from her purse.

The beating death of Sato, who was 56, has sparked indignation in Japan and has rippled across other parts of East Asia, irritating a region that's already raw over incidents in which U.S. military personnel are linked to violence against civilians.

Sato was killed Jan. 3. Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright, the commander of American military forces in Japan, led a group of some 80 U.S. military personnel who attended her wake Wednesday night. Japanese news media said Wright conveyed "deep apologies." Some 100 American personnel attended the funeral Thursday.

The slaying occurred as Washington and Tokyo toil to overcome broad local opposition to a major realignment of U.S. military forces in Japan, including the deployment of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to a nation that has an allergy toward things nuclear.

Japanese and American defense negotiators began security talks in Washington last week on how to restructure U.S. forces in Japan, which number some 50,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. The plan is to be ready by the end of March.

The murder of Sato, a widow with three sons and six grandchildren, brought anguish to Yokosuka, 30 miles south of Tokyo. An avid golfer, Sato was walking to her job site, where she cleaned buses, when a sailor, who police say was William Oliver Reese, a 21-year-old New Jersey native, stepped out and grabbed her at about 6:30 a.m.

When her body was recovered, police said the assailant had severely beaten her, rupturing organs, and that 15,000 yen ($129) was missing from her purse.

Three of Sato's golf trophies were on display at her wake along with her kimono. "I just don't understand why he killed her," her son, Yoshinori Sato, 40, said through tears. "I want to ask the criminal why he did it."

South Korea, the Philippines and Japan all have seen protests in recent years demanding justice after incidents involving American military personnel.

In the Philippines, four U.S. Marines are under detention at the American Embassy in Manila after the November gang rape of a 22-year-old woman in Olongapo City. Some legislators are irritated that Manila has yet to gain custody of the Marines.

In Seoul, protests erupted in late 2002 after two U.S. soldiers were acquitted in a court-martial for an incident in which their vehicle hit and killed two schoolgirls. More recently, an American military truck killed a woman who was pulling a cart in Seoul last June, prompting President Bush to express condolences. The Pentagon maintains some 32,500 U.S. troops in South Korea.

Sensitivities in Japan, which date back decades, flared in 1995 when three American servicemen were accused of the brutal rape of a 12-year-old girl in Okinawa.

Three weeks ago, also in the military port of Yokosuka, a U.S. sailor who was driving a minivan struck three children, injuring them slightly. One child suffered a broken collarbone.

Japanese media described the incident as a "hit-and-run" and complained when the 23-year-old sailor wasn't charged. The Navy said the children had darted into the road.

Public opinion in Yokosuka is important to Tokyo and Washington. In late October, the Bush administration told Tokyo that it sought to replace the conventionally powered Kitty Hawk, which has Yokosuka as its home port, with a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered carrier. Resistance has been intense in Yokosuka, which also happens to be Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's home constituency.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan J. Thomas Schieffer has sought to lower opposition to the new carrier in Yokosuka, only to face a new flash point with Sato's killing.

In a statement after Sato's death, Schieffer declared that the "U.S. military and American people are deeply shocked and saddened" by the murder and that the Navy would work with Japan "to ensure that justice is done."

Still, residents are worried, describing American military personnel as less well behaved than in the past.

"The quality of the servicemen is getting worse and worse these days," said Yuichi Yamamoto, who owns a small bookshop near where Sato encountered the sailor.

The talks under way in Washington mark what's likely to become a major realignment of American forces in Japan, the cornerstone of the U.S. defense position in East Asia.

"This really is the first post-Cold War massive restructuring there," said Sheila Smith, a specialist on American-Japanese security issues at Honolulu's East-West Center, an education and research group on Asian and Pacific affairs.

As part of the realignment, some U.S. forces are to be moved off Okinawa to other parts of Japan, but fears of criminal and rowdy behavior by American service members make acceptance in other communities difficult.


(Knight Ridder special correspondent Doi reported from Yokosuka; Johnson reported from Beijing.)


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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