Defense, diplomacy chiefs sidestep SOFA

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Thursday’s agreement between the United States and Japan to revise defense cooperation guidelines touched on a number of core issues, such as transferring U.S. Marines to Guam, building a contentious replacement in Okinawa for the Futenma base, and cooperating on ballistic missile defense and cybersecurity.

But the meeting between Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel avoided what critics of the bilateral alliance say is the most taboo subject of all — revising the Status of Forces Agreement.

Politicians on the right and left of the political spectrum have long sought to change the agreement, which has never been formally revised since coming into force in 1960.

At the local level, ruling bloc and opposition leaders are seeking basic revisions to allow more autonomy over U.S. bases and the military personnel and their families who live on or around them.

In late July, governors from 14 prefectures hosting U.S. military bases and facilities submitted a request to the central government, asking for the SOFA to be revised in 15 different areas.

The requests include, first, that the Foreign and Defense ministries explain in detail the purpose of the U.S. bases and the restrictions on them, as well a formal, periodic review by the central government to ensure the installations meet their stated purpose and are operating under the agreed-upon restrictions.

The governors also want a provision for environmental monitoring by the central government within the bases. Until the SOFA is formally revised to include such monitoring, the prefectural leaders want an interim agreement between Japan and the United States for this purpose.

They also demand SOFA limits on flight operations over residential areas, at night and on national holidays. While the U.S. military often voluntarily refrains from operations during these times, the governors want it enshrined in the agreement.

In addition, there is a call to have the SOFA establish measures to reduce aircraft noise and set altitude minimums. With the decision to use mainland facilities for MV-22 Osprey flight training, local governments are concerned about the altitude at which the hybrid tilt-rotor aircraft will fly.

Accusations that U.S. military aircraft sometime fly below legal limits are long-standing, and there is strong support among the 14 governors for revising this section of the SOFA in particular.

In addition, the governors want a revised agreement to place a ban on the U.S. military using commercial airports, except in an emergency.

Six of the 15 revisions requested focus on giving Japanese authorities more control over American service members accused of crimes, or to ensure local authorities are not blocked from investigating accidents involving U.S. aircraft.

If Japan has jurisdiction, the governors say, the SOFA should require the United States to turn over a detained suspect to Japanese authorities if requested. Separate bilateral agreements say the U.S. will give positive consideration to Japanese requests to turn over suspects accused of serious crimes, such as murder and rape.

The governors want the wording of the SOFA to oblige the U.S. to turn over suspects to Japanese authorities before indictment in all cases, if so requested by Tokyo.

Toru Uchida, a spokesman for the group of governors, said that there has been no word yet from the central government concerning the July request, but that a formal answer will likely arrive later this year.