The issue of U.S. military forces in Japan has come to the fore again following the alleged rape of a 14-year-old Okinawan girl by a U.S. Marine. Although the girl has withdrawn the accusation, locals and politicians have seized on the incident — a reminder of the 1995 gang rape of a 12-year-old girl by two marines and a navy corpsman — to compel a rethink of the presence of U.S. forces in Japan.

Following are some questions and answers on the matter:

How many U.S. service members are based in Japan, how many dependents do they have with them here and what is the breakdown by branch of service?

According to U.S. Forces Japan headquarters at Yokota Air Base, as of February there were 47,200 service members based in Japan, including 11,700 aboard vessels of the 7th Fleet. In addition, there were 3,510 U.S. civilian personnel and 41,695 family members. Of the 47,200 service members, 17,400 were in the navy, 15,000 in the marines corps, 12,300 in the air force and 2,500 in the army.

Okinawa hosts more service members by far than any other prefecture. According to the prefectural government, Okinawa was home to 23,140 U.S. military-related individuals, including 13,480 marines and 7,080 airmen, as of September 2006.

How much land do U.S. bases in Japan occupy?

As of March 2006, the 87 facilities exclusively used by the U.S. military covered an area roughly half the size of the 23 wards of Tokyo, or 312.2 sq. km.

Yet Okinawa, which makes up only 0.6 percent of the nation’s land area, contributes 74.7 percent of the land for the bases.

Who are the owners of the vast compounds exclusively used by the U.S. forces?

On the mainland, most of the land where U.S. bases are located belongs to the Japanese government and other public entities and is provided free of charge, based on the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.

The treaty obliges Japan to give the U.S. use of those properties to maintain peace and order in Japan and the Far East. Many such compounds on the mainland were formerly owned and used by the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy.

In contrast, in Okinawa one-third of the area used by U.S. forces is privately owned, most of it having been confiscated by the U.S. military soon after the war. The U.S. occupied Okinawa until its reversion in 1972 despite Japan’s recovery of independence with the 1951 San Francisco Treaty.

Today, the Japanese government pays a considerable amount of rent to the landowners.

Why were U.S. troops initially stationed in Japan?

The U.S. military in Japan traces its origin to the postwar Occupation, beginning with the arrival of Gen. Douglas MacArthur at Atsugi airfield in Kanagawa Prefecture as Supreme Allied Commander on Aug. 30, 1945.

The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 made Japan an important strategic base for the U.S. during the Cold War confrontation, which prompted the two countries to conclude the bilateral security treaty maintaining U.S. forces in Japan.

What are the strategic benefits for the U.S. of stationing forces in Japan today?

Experts say U.S. bases in Japan are extremely important for the U.S. to maintain its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, even as far as the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. For example, the Yokosuka Naval Base in Kanagawa Prefecture is often described as the most strategically important U.S. naval installation overseas.

Similarly, Okinawa, because of its proximity to the Taiwan Strait as well as mainland China and the Korean Peninsula, has been dubbed by the U.S. military “The Keystone of the Pacific.”

Many military vessels, airplanes and service members, including the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, Aegis destroyers, F-15 fighters and marine corps units, have been dispatched from bases in Japan to fight in Iraq and maintain postwar security operations there.

The recent alleged rape in Okinawa prompted opposition parties and 14 prefectural governors to launch separate calls for a revision of the Status of Forces Agreement. What is the SOFA?

When a country allows U.S. forces to be stationed on its territory in peacetime, the two countries usually conclude a Status of Forces Agreement to define the legal status of the military personnel. Without such an agreement, conflicts may occur between the legal authorities of the two countries over such matters as immigration, tax and customs and criminal and civil jurisdiction. Japan and the U.S. signed a SOFA in 1960.

Is it true, as critics charge, that the SOFA gives unfair privileges to the U.S. forces here?

Japanese local leaders and antimilitary activists often criticize the SOFA for giving virtual extraterritorial rights to U.S. personnel.

In particular, they point out that under the accord, criminal suspects with the U.S. military are held on U.S. bases in the custody of U.S. forces, and are handed over to Japanese authorities only after an indictment is filed.

The Foreign Ministry, however, argues that the SOFA is not unfair, and in fact gives more favorable conditions to the Japanese side than most other SOFAs the U.S. has concluded with other countries.

For example, under the U.S. SOFA with Germany, U.S. military suspects are handed over to the German side only when punishment is actually meted out against convicted criminals, not at the time of indictment as under the Japan-U.S. SOFA.

How much support, both direct and indirect, does Japan provide to help shoulder the cost of the U.S. forces in Japan?

According to a 2004 report by the U.S. Department of Defense, Japan contributed direct financial support worth $3.23 billion and indirect support worth $1.18 billion in fiscal 2002, which offset as much as 74.5 percent of the total costs for the U.S. to station its forces in Japan.

“Japan . . . provides over $4 billion in host-nation support — the most generous of any U.S. ally — and remains steadfast in supporting its share of the costs of alliance transformation,” Adm. Timothy Keating, naval commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 11.

Japan’s direct financial support includes paying the salaries of some 25,000 nonmilitary workers at U.S. military facilities in Japan. Japan also pays for the electricity, gas, water and sewage as well as for the cooking and heating fuels at U.S. military housing facilities.

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