NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – A pact governing the legal status and conduct of U.S. military and nonmilitary personnel in Japan is back under the spotlight following last month’s arrest of an American civilian base worker in Okinawa Prefecture suspected of raping and killing a local Japanese woman.
Fueled by the murder of the 20-year-old woman, tens of thousands of protesters in Okinawa rallied Sunday to vent their frustration at the way the Japanese and U.S. governments have dealt with crimes committed by U.S. service personnel and base workers.
Rather than revising the 1960 Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement to better deal with such crimes, the two governments have just tinkered with its implementation, Okinawa officials say.
When the gang rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen in 1995 set off a firestorm of protest in Okinawa, an agreement was struck the following year to return land occupied by one of the U.S. bases in the prefecture to Japanese control.
The United States also said it would give “sympathetic consideration” to Japanese requests to hand over suspects in heinous crimes such as murder and rape.
But Sueko Yamauchi, an Okinawa Prefectural Assembly member from the city of Uruma, where the murdered woman lived, says taking a case-by-case approach to how crimes are handled gives too much discretion to the U.S. military.
In last month’s case, Japanese police were able to arrest Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, a Kadena Air Base worker who was off-duty when the murder of Rina Shimabukuro allegedly occurred. But if the U.S. had taken custody of him, his handover to Japanese authorities could have been delayed until after his indictment.
“It is absurd to completely entrust (decisions) to the U.S. military as if Japan is a subordinate or Okinawa is still under military occupation. Revising the pact, which has never been done, is naturally our right,” she said.
Yamauchi said her city, which hosts such U.S. bases as Camp Courtney, is no stranger to incidents and crimes involving U.S. service personnel.
Uruma’s history includes a tragic incident in 1959 when a U.S. fighter jet crashed into Miyamori Elementary School, killing some of its pupils.
“Every time an incident occurs, the U.S. side talks about enforcing stricter discipline and re-educating personnel, but then another incident happens,” she said.
Residents have complained that the accord gives undue protection to U.S. service personnel and can create a “sense of privilege” that makes offenders believe they can get away with crimes if they make it back to their bases, Yamauchi said.
Toru Aketagawa, a lecturer at Hosei University’s faculty of law who is knowledgeable about SOFA, said there are limits to the effectiveness of the pact and to the current changes in the way it is implemented.
He proposed that the agreement stipulate that the United States is “required” to hand over suspects to Japanese authorities, rather than just allowing for “sympathetic consideration.”
Every time a U.S. military-linked crime occurs, Tokyo and Washington issue documents including new guidelines to refine SOFA in terms of operational arrangements. But while the United States and Japan have not rewritten their accord, Washington has done so with South Korea, where it also has bases.
Apart from reworking SOFA’s contentious Article 17, which gives the U.S. military the right to jurisdiction over personnel and civilian employees if they break Japanese laws while engaged in official duties, experts say Japanese authorities should be allowed more access to U.S. bases. Experts also say there is a need to make U.S. forces subject to stricter immigration controls because the exact number of service personnel stationed in Japan and whether any are previous criminal offenders is often unclear.
The murder case became an issue just before President Barack Obama visited Japan to attend the Group of Seven summit in Mie Prefecture in May. During summit talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Obama said the incident was “inexcusable” and vowed to do “everything that we can to prevent any crimes of this sort from taking place.”
Abe, however, did not raise the issue of revising SOFA, stirring a protest from Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who was denied a requested meeting with Obama.
Tokyo and Washington have begun working out details to clarify the scope of civilians working at bases under the accord, which defines the legal status of U.S. service members and nonmilitary personnel at bases in the country.
Aketagawa and Yamauchi stress that revision alone is not a silver bullet and will only be effective if undertaken in tandem with steps to prevent recurrences, such as re-education of U.S. personnel.
Citing Okinawa police data, a resolution of protest adopted at Sunday’s massive rally in Naha stated that since the 1972 reversion of Okinawa to Japan from U.S. control, there have been 5,862 criminal incidents involving U.S. military personnel, with 571 classified as heinous crimes.
“I do not feel safe walking outside, knowing there are incidents like the recent one,” said a woman in her 40s from Ginowan, the city that hosts unpopular U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
Okinawa International University professor Hiromori Maedomari, an expert on SOFA and U.S. base issue, says even getting rid of the agreement altogether should be considered.
“In the context of SOFA, why not put in a clause about imposing penalties for violations? Or why not simply enforce Japanese laws on all incidents and cases, regardless of their status?”
Maedomari said it is counterproductive to continue seeking revisions, calling it unrealistic given the positions of the Japanese and U.S. governments.
“There are obstacles as to why it is hard to revise SOFA. One is disinterest and lack of knowledge among the public and officials in Japan about the accord. There is also a lack of political will to carry out changes to SOFA, which is a complex issue linked to Japan-U.S. security. Until these and other hurdles are cleared, changing SOFA has a long way to go,” Maedomari said.
He also pointed to the double standard Japan would face if it pushed to impose its laws on U.S. servicemen when it has similar agreements protecting Self-Defense Forces personnel operating outside of Japan. For instance, in Djibouti in East Africa, Japan has the primary right to exercise jurisdiction, whether its personnel are on or off duty.