NAHA, Okinawa Pref. – Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine told Foreign Minister Yohei Kono here on Sunday that the people of Okinawa Prefecture “can no longer bear” the burden of hosting such a large segment of the U.S. military forces in Japan.
“In a way, we had been reserved about demanding a reduction of the Marines and other U.S. military forces. But we can no longer bear it,” Inamine said, alluding to recent incidents in the prefecture involving U.S. service members, including one suspected of arson.
In a 40-minute open meeting at the Okinawa prefectural office, Inamine reiterated Okinawa’s demands that Washington reduce the size and scope of U.S. military presence in the prefecture and asked for the central government’s backing.
The demands also include revising the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, which primarily covers the management and operation of U.S. military bases in Japan, to facilitate the handover of U.S. soldiers suspected of crimes to Japanese authorities.
Kono, on a one-day trip to the southernmost prefecture, reiterated that if operational improvements to the SOFA fail to remedy the situation, the Japanese government may have to consider revising the agreement.
Inamine, however, said, “Operational improvements alone will not put everything in order.”
At a subsequent luncheon hosted by Kono for Inamine and other local government officials, Chatan Mayor Choichi Hentona also said Kono’s intention to seek operational improvements in the SOFA is insufficient.
“The foreign minister just says we should make operational improvements, but we need solid improvements. Making subtle changes means we will repeat the same course that we have trod upon,” Hentona said.
The SOFA states that the United States is not bound to hand over suspected personnel to Japanese authorities prior to indictment.
In an operational change following a 1995 rape case involving three U.S. soldiers, Japan and the U.S. agreed on pre-indictment handovers of military personnel suspected of homicide, rape and other unspecified serious crimes.
In Tokyo earlier this month, Kono told Inamine that Japan might consider seeking a revision of the pact to facilitate handovers, in the wake of the U.S. Marine Corps’ refusal to turn over a U.S. serviceman suspected of involvement in arson attacks in Okinawa in mid-January.
A few days later, Okinawa prosecutors indicted the Marine, and he was then turned over to Japanese authorities.
In the late morning meeting with Inamine and Okinawa prefectural assembly chairman Kokichi Iramina, Kono said, “The issue of military reduction runs parallel with the international situation.”
He said that the perceived easing of tensions on the Korean Peninsula following last June’s inter-Korean summit does not immediately imply a corresponding reduction of U.S. forces in Japan.
Inamine agreed when Kono asked for understanding that the situation on the Korean Peninsula must be observed carefully before a decision can be made on the size of U.S. military in Okinawa.
Iramina told Kono that revising the SOFA and reducing the number of U.S. forces in Okinawa are both “inevitable” if the Japanese government’s plans to develop Okinawa are to be successful.
In the early afternoon, the foreign minister met with Brig. Gen. Willie Williams, chief of the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa Prefecture, about what can be done to prevent accidents and crimes by U.S. soldiers based in the prefecture.
Kono told a press conference he had “meaningful talks” with everyone he met in the Okinawa capital, but how to actually resolve the pending problems is a continuing issue on which all parties involved must keep working together.
“I felt that we must think harder and make more efforts to prevent recurrences of incidents (involving U.S. soldiers) and deal with the overall situation,” Kono said.
He said he was unable to meet with the top U.S. commander in Okinawa, Lt. Gen. Earl Hailston, who is away. Williams is acting on Hailston’s behalf during his absence.
Okinawa Prefecture accounts for only 0.6 percent of Japan’s territory but 75 percent of the land occupied by U.S. forces in Japan. About 25,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed in Okinawa — more than half the 47,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan.
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