/ |

Okinawa takes wait-and-see attitude on changes to Japan-U.S. SOFA

by

Staff Writer

Tuesday’s announcement by Tokyo and Washington that an agreement has been reached that more narrowly defines those classified as civilians employed by the U.S. military in Japan was greeted with caution by top Okinawan officials, who are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

But the new definitions covering civilian contractors and technical experts and the legal protections they enjoy under the bilateral Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which now separates them into four basic categories, are unlikely to quell calls for more fundamental revisions to the pact itself.

Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga told reporters Tuesday afternoon in Naha that as details were still lacking, the prefecture will be watching carefully to see how bilateral discussions to further refine those details progress over the following months.

Others, however, said the new agreement is not enough.

“The definitions of civilian workers remains too vague, and I think the agreement is insufficient,” said Satoshi Taira, an Onaga supporter and a leader of an Okinawa group opposed to the construction of the Henoko base to replace the Futenma facility.

The four categories now defined as being part of the American military’s “civilian component” under SOFA are civilians paid by the U.S. government to work for the U.S. military in Japan (on land); civilians who work on ships or with aircraft that are operated by the military; civilians working for the U.S. government and staying in Japan on official business related to the military, and technical advisers and consultants who are in Japan at the invitation of the military.

The U.S. has primary jurisdiction over such civilians, as it does with military personnel and their dependents, if an alleged offense occurs while they are on duty.

The issue of jurisdiction has long been a source of tension and controversy in Okinawa.

That is because police investigating alleged crimes by those covered under SOFA cannot enter military bases without permission to investigate. And more importantly, if the U.S. determines an offense has occurred while on duty, the alleged perpetrator cannot be indicted by Japanese prosecutors.

The U.S. is supposed to give “sympathetic consideration” to Japanese requests to turn over those protected by SOFA who are alleged to have committed an offense, but legally it does not have to honor those requests.

Tetsuo Kotani, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, said Tuesday’s agreement is about the best that could have been expected.

“The agreement is important in narrowing and clarifying the subject of SOFA. It was not clear whether the suspect in the recent murder case was subject to SOFA, although the case itself was a huge tragedy,” Kotani said. “To meet Okinawa’s anger and frustration, the agreement was the most Tokyo and Washington could do given the fact any revision of SOFA is unrealistic.”

In a Kyodo News poll taken in Okinawa at the end of May, 71 percent of the respondents favored revisions to SOFA. The survey was taken soon after American contract worker Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, a former U.S. Marine who works at Kadena Air Base, was arrested and then indicted on charges of raping and murdering 20-year-old Rina Shimabukuro.

But there is a difference between revision, or reinterpretation, of the language of SOFA and fundamental revisions to the agreement itself.

Changes to the arrangement have become a hot-button issue in the Upper House election.

Liberal Democratic Party member Aiko Shimajiri, seeking re-election in Okinawa, has called for revision of SOFA. Her opponent, Yoichi Iha, is also campaigning for a fundamental overhaul, which would require formal renegotiation of the agreement and, most likely, changes to Japanese law.

Hiromori Maedomari, a professor at Okinawa International University and an expert on SOFA, said Tuesday’s deal is meaningless.

“There’s no way for the Japanese government to check to determine if the civilian workers are really qualified for the jobs they were hired for,” he said. “They don’t even know how many civilian workers are currently in Japan today. It was a political ploy, conducted on the eve of the Upper House election.”

The most recent statistics available from the Okinawa Prefectural Government show that in June 2011 there were 1,994 civilian contract workers in Okinawa covered by SOFA. Of that number, 1,139 were employed by the navy; 437 by the air force; 326 by the army and 92 by the marines. At that time, there were just under 26,000 American military personnel in Okinawa, with just under 20,000 dependents.