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Calls to revise SOFA in wake of Okinawa murder unlikely to bear fruit

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

As a result of the recent murder of a 20-year-old woman in Okinawa, allegedly at the hands of a U.S. base worker and former marine, calls are once again growing for a revision to the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA.

On Tuesday, Aiko Shimajiri, the minister in charge of Okinawa’s affairs, and other LDP lawmakers from the prefecture submitted a request to LDP Secretary-General Sadakazu Tanigaki calling for revision of the agreement.

Tanigaki reportedly told the group that “the party will make every effort” regarding the issue.

And elsewhere, in Kanagawa Prefecture, which hosts the U.S.’s Yokosuka naval base, the prefectural assembly on the same day unanimously called for the revision of the agreement to prevent recurrences of crimes like the latest in Okinawa, which is linked with the American military presence.

What is SOFA?

The agreement was originally signed by the United States and Japan in 1960. Among other things, it governs how U.S. military forces and related civilians, including the families of U.S. service personnel and civilian contractors, are to be treated in everything from minor traffic accidents to more serious crimes, by Japanese authorities while in Japan.

Following the 1995 case where a 12-year-old girl was gang raped by three American servicemen in Okinawa, Tokyo and Washington reached an informal deal under which the U.S. side agreed to give “favorable consideration” to Japanese requests that it hand over suspects if they are suspected of having committed heinous crimes such as murder and rape. Still, the agreement has never been formally revised since its 1960 inception.

Why has the issue come up again?

The murder earlier this month of 20-year-old Okinawan office worker Rina Shimabukuro, allegedly at the hands of Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, a 32-year-old American working at Kadena Air Base, has sparked fresh ire in Okinawa.

Many residents want Tokyo and Washington to formally revise SOFA to give local authorities nationwide more authority in questioning, and if necessary, prosecuting U.S. military personnel or civilians like Shinzato.

An association of 14 governors whose prefectures host U.S. bases has called for SOFA’s revision to grant them more authority when such incidents occur. However, neither Prime Minister Shinzo Abe nor U.S. President Barack Obama raised the issue during their bilateral meeting at the G-7 summit in Japan last week.

Why are both sides reluctant to revise?

The U.S. and Japanese legal systems are very different. The U.S. side in particular is concerned about whether an accused U.S. citizen, especially a member of the military who is subject to U.S. military law, will receive a fair trial by U.S. standards in a Japanese court.

This is interpreted by the U.S. side to mean a lawyer being present during questioning of suspects, and the interview process being recorded, all conditions Japan has found difficult to accept.

But as a January 2015 State Department report on America’s SOFA agreements worldwide made clear, agreeing to hand over American suspects to foreign countries with drastically different legal systems could end up becoming problematic.

“U.S. willingness to deploy forces overseas, and public support for such deployments, could suffer significant setbacks if U.S. personnel were at risk of being tried in an inherently unfair system, or at any rate, one that departs fundamentally from U.S. concepts of basic procedural fairness,” the report said.

Thus, until the U.S. is satisfied that the Japanese legal system will treat those under the SOFA agreement in a way similar to how they would be treated under the U.S. system, the revisions Okinawa and local governments are seeking remain unlikely, and such alleged crimes will continue to be handled on a case-by-case basis.