SINGAPORE – In the wake of another violent crime in Okinawa, the United States on Saturday agreed with Japan to review the scope of Americans who are covered by a bilateral pact that grants virtual extraterritorial rights to U.S. military service members.
Last month a civilian American worker at a base in Okinawa was arrested over the death of a woman.
“I sincerely regret this incident and apologize,” U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said during a meeting in Singapore with Japanese Foreign Minister Gen Nakatani, adding that he agrees on the need for the review. “I appreciate the opportunity to work together so that an incident like this never happens again,” Carter said.
Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga and the assembly of the prefecture, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military bases in Japan, have called for revising the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).
But the deal between Carter and Nakatani is not about revising the pact itself and is still seen as part of preventive measures following the crime. The review is mainly aimed at clarifying the legal status of civilian workers under the 1960 pact.
Both sides also agreed to take additional steps to better manage civilians working at U.S. military facilities in Japan, according to Nakatani, who met with Carter on the sidelines of an annual regional security forum.
More than 40 years since its return to Japan in 1972 following postwar U.S. occupation, Okinawa still hosts about 75 percent of U.S. military facilities in Japan in terms of land area.
Okinawa has long not only suffered from aircraft and other noises from the bases, but also from crimes involving U.S. servicemen.
SOFA is seen by Okinawans as one-sided and overly protective of Americans.
Under SOFA, which has never been revised, Japanese prosecutors cannot indict members of U.S. forces or their “civilian component” if offenses are deemed to have been committed while on duty. U.S. authorities have, in principle, the primary right to exercise jurisdiction over them in such cases.
SOFA allows a suspect to cooperate with Japanese investigations only on a voluntary basis in some cases.
The United States is reluctant to undertake a fundamental overhaul of SOFA but believes that the way the agreement is applied can be improved.
Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, a former marine who worked in a civilian capacity at the U.S. Air Force’s Kadena Air Base, was arrested on May 19 for allegedly abandoning the body of the 20-year-old woman.
He is alleged to have confessed to sexually assaulting and killing her but has not been charged with murder. In this case, SOFA has not posed any obstacle to investigations.
Following the talks between Carter and Nakatani, a senior Okinawa official said the prefectural government will seek a fundamental overhaul of SOFA.
“We believe that U.S. military base personnel have the idea in the back of their mind that they are protected by the pact even if they commit a crime,” the official said. “A drastic revision to the pact” is the only solution for changing that way of thinking.”
The official said Saturday’s agreement is “a step forward” but not enough, arguing that the Japanese system of justice should be applied to American civilians working on U.S. bases.