National / Crime & Legal

Family's pain over 2006 Yokosuka murder reflects desire for SOFA rethink

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

Justice has been a long time coming for Masanori Yamazaki, whose common-law wife was murdered by a drunk U.S. sailor in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, 10 years ago, in an unprovoked assault.

Yamazaki, 68, is refusing a U.S. government offer to settle over the death of Yoshie Sato, taking a stand at what he perceives as injustices under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, the legal framework that sets out criminal procedures for U.S. military offenders in Japan.

As work on possible revision of the 56-year-old legal framework gets underway, Yamazaki’s case highlights how hard it can be for victims of crimes committed by troops or U.S. civilian workers to obtain closure.

Sato, 56, was on her way to work at a bus company in Yokosuka on the morning of Jan. 3, 2006, when she was approached by William Reese, 21, an off-duty crew member of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk.

Reese, who had been drinking, asked her directions to the base. He then robbed her of ¥15,000 and beat and kicked her to death.

He was convicted of robbery and murder in June that year.

Yamazaki and other relatives of Sato sued Reese and the Japanese government in October 2006, demanding a combined ¥124 million in damages. In May 2009, the Yokohama District Court ordered Reese to pay ¥65 million and dismissed the claims against the government. Reese’s compensation order was finalized by the Supreme Court in June 2013.

But because of SOFA, following through on the order has been slow and the path murky. In June 2015, the U.S. government informed the Defense Ministry in Tokyo that it would make an “ex gratia payment” of about ¥26 million because Reese is unable to raise the funds. The sum is about 40 percent of the total ordered by the court.

Moreover, the U.S. government demanded immunity from further legal action, for it and for Reese.

Yamazaki finds this unacceptable after waiting two full years for the U.S. offer.

“If you drive a car and hit somebody in an accident, you would first fix the car you damaged, take the person to a hospital, and then ask for forgiveness, right?” he said.

“It doesn’t make sense to say you pay money only if you are given immunity. Plus, we have no way of knowing whether Defense Ministry officials are conveying what the U.S. side is saying. We have no idea what the Japanese and U.S. governments are really negotiating.”

Retired bus driver Yamazaki and his lawyers now contend they are willing to forgo claims against the U.S. government but not against Reese, since he is not paying.

Yamazaki is also indignant at the assumption that the Japanese government should pick up the remainder of the ¥65 million tab.

“If a member of the U.S. military commits a crime, the U.S. military should pay for it. Why should the Japanese government spend its taxpayers’ money to pay for U.S. crimes?”

In past cases involving crimes committed by U.S. military personnel against Japanese citizens, it has always been up to the U.S. to decide the amount of ex gratia payments, according to Shinsuke Nakamura, a lawyer for Yamazaki.

“The Japanese government is supposed to make claims to the U.S. side, but it is the U.S. that ultimately decides the amount. The Japanese government has also told us it will not pay the remaining sum unless we agree to the terms of the settlement.”

A clause in the so-called Special Action Committee on Okinawa agreement struck between Japan and the U.S. in 1996 notes that in the past, there have been “only a very few cases” where payment by the U.S. government did not satisfy the full amount awarded by a final court judgment. Nakamura believes this is not so, saying when such cases occur the U.S. government often ends up offering less than half the sum demanded by the court.

Unless such “unfair” arrangements are changed, crimes by U.S. troops against Japanese citizens will continue, Yamazaki said. He pointed to the recent rape and murder of a 20-year-old woman in Uruma, Okinawa. An American contractor working at the U.S. Kadena Air Base has been arrested in the case.

“I cried, watching the news of the Okinawa girl,” Yamazaki said. “It must have been horribly painful for her. It’s always the children and women who are victimized.”

Tens of thousands of Okinawa residents took part in a mass protest in Naha on Sunday over the murder and ongoing resentment against the presence of U.S. military bases.

But compared with the situation in Okinawa, where anti-base sentiment has reached boiling point, the reactions of Yokosuka citizens to U.S. military-related crimes have been tame, Yamazaki said.

He pointed to Yokosuka’s generally accommodating attitudes. His wife, for example, was taken advantage of when she tried to help the perpetrator with directions.

Questions of history make the situation even more acute in Okinawa, he said, as people there were “deprived of their land,” and this contrasts with the situation in Yokosuka.

“In Yokosuka, the U.S. took over the base of the former Imperial Japanese Navy, not citizens’ properties. Moreover, Yokosuka city officials have long promoted friendship with the naval base, hosting festivals and so on.

“Unless SOFA is revised to become an equal treaty, the crimes will never go away. Orders to step up discipline of U.S. military personnel will never reach the rank-and-file, as long as the agreement allows them to take Japanese people lightly.”