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NAHA, Okinawa — A Tokyo official praised the U.S. military here recently, pointing out that Americans on Okinawa commit fewer crimes per capita than the local population.

Just before departing Okinawa for his next Foreign Ministry assignment, Hiroshi Hashimoto, the ambassador for Okinawa Affairs, said U.S. military officials are working hard to prevent crimes by servicemembers.

During a news conference for the Japanese media, he said the number of crimes committed by persons on Okinawa under the status of forces agreement had “dropped remarkably” in the 30 years since the United States returned the island prefecture to Japan.

“The per capita crime rate of servicemembers involved in recent days is lower than that of the Okinawa people in general, and the crime rate of servicemembers itself is much lower than that of those days before reversion,” he said. “That is an objective fact.”

Hashimoto, who held the Okinawa post for two years, is expected to be named ambassador to Austria. “I believe it is important to acknowledge the effort being made by military officials,” he said.

However, he conceded that Okinawans are less tolerant of crimes by American servicemembers, despite the drop in the number of incidents. “Reducing the U.S. military presence on Okinawa is a critical issue,” he said. “So the people’s tolerance for incidents and accidents by military members is much lower than it was in the past.”

Hashimoto said Okinawa was vital to the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and Tokyo would “continue to ask the military for their continued effort for zero tolerance of heinous crime and reducing other criminal offenses” committed by servicemembers.

Hashimoto did not refer to any specific figures during the news conference.

According to statistics compiled by Okinawa police, the number of crimes committed by Americans has increased slightly over the past three years, but most were misdemeanors. Approximately 50,000 Americans live on Okinawa as part of the U.S. military community. In 2001, the last year complete crime statistics were available, they were charged with 70 incidents, or 1.3 percent of the total reported crimes on Okinawa. That’s 0.14 crimes for every 100 Americans on Okinawa.

Okinawa police reported 5,198 crimes committed by Okinawans in 2001, for a rate of 0.4 per 100 people. Crimes included in the figures range from serious felonies, such as murder and rape, to minor thefts.

Okinawa officials have expressed their concern about the increase of crimes committed by Americans over the past five years and have demanded the military increase efforts to control the behavior of troops off base. In 1997, for example, SOFA-status Americans committed just 44 crimes, according to police statistics. But the total has been on the increase since then.

The 70 crimes reported in 2001, however, are still far below the 219 crimes attributed to Americans in 1972, the year Okinawa reverted to Japan, and the 342 reported in 1977, the highest since reversion.

But Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine said Friday that issues involving U.S. troops in Okinawa prefecture should be considered on the basis of the war and postwar events, not simply by numerical comparisons, The Japan Times reported.

“Instead of the simple comparison of just numbers, it is necessary for us to look at the long history of 58 years” of U.S. forces being stationed in Japan, Inamine said at a news conference. The U.S. military bases “are not something that Okinawa itself desired,” Inamine said. “The most basic thing is that there should not be even one accident caused by the U.S. troops.”

Okinawa anti-base groups also objected to Hashimoto’s remarks, saying they illustrated the “discriminative view Tokyo has toward Okinawa.”

“The pain and burden the Okinawan people are forced to undertake are of minute importance and the incidents and accidents servicemembers commit here are insignificant matters to them,” Shiko Sakiyama, chairman of the Okinawa Peace Activity Center, told the Okinawa Times.

— Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.

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