- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 24, 2012

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, Vice Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the 7th Fleet, 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 AP, Adm. 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, Air Force Lt. Gen. Salvatore Angelella, 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.”

Adm. Cloyd said the Navy also is reviewing its liberty policies.

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