National / Politics

Japan, U.S. agree to narrow definition of 'civilian component' protected by SOFA

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

The Japanese and U.S. governments officially agreed Tuesday to limit the extent to which U.S. military workers are protected under the Status of Forces Agreement, which gives the U.S. jurisdiction over American civilian workers who commit crimes while on duty.

The change in the implementation of SOFA was announced amid mounting protests among the people of Okinawa against the U.S. military presence in the prefecture, sparked most recently by the rape and murder of 20-year-old Rina Shimabukuro, allegedly by Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, a 32-year-old civilian employee at Kadena Air Base and a former U.S. Marine.

“Today’s agreement is a further indication of the commitment of the U.S. government,” Ambassador Caroline Kennedy said when she announced the agreement at the start of a meeting with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani and Lt. Gen. John Dolan.

Since the murder case began in May, Tokyo and Washington have been working to revise the implementation of SOFA, while many people in Okinawa have been demanding a total revision of the 1960 agreement, which has never been revised.

Tuesday’s agreement centers on narrowing the definition of “civilian component,” which under SOFA is defined as “civilian persons of United States nationality who are in the employ of, serving with, or accompanying the United States armed forces in Japan.”

As with U.S. service members, the U.S. has jurisdiction over civilian workers who commit crimes while on duty, but many Okinawans feel the classification is overly broad and vague.

Under Tuesday’s change, the civilian component will be narrowed to four categories: civilians paid or funded by the U.S. government to work for the U.S. military in Japan; civilians working on vessels and aircraft operated by the U.S. military; civilians working for the U.S. government and staying in Japan solely for official purposes in connection with the U.S. military; and technical advisers and consultant saying in Japan at the official invitation of and solely for the U.S. military.

For consultants and advisers, the two governments said they will ensure that those who are working for firms contracted by the U.S. military have the high degree of skill and knowledge necessary for the mission of the U.S. military. The governments will negotiate to define what exactly that means in the coming months, and work to ink a legally binding mutual understanding.

Tuesday’s agreement also excludes those who have permanent residency status in Japan from the civilian component.

Japanese officials said that someone like Shinzato, who was working at a cable television and internet-related business at Kadena Air Base, would not be considered a civilian component under the new, more stringent framework.

Tokyo is championing the envisioned introduction of the four categories as a step forward, but it is unclear how narrowing the definition of the civilian component under SOFA will prevent crimes committed by base workers in the future, or pacify the rage of Okinawa residents.

Nakatani said base workers not protected by SOFA will be tried under the Japanese system, and a Defense Ministry official said Japanese police “will not need to enter the base,” provided the U.S. military hands over suspects.

If a suspect were to flee into the base facilities, however, initially preventing the Japanese police from accessing evidence left on-base, it could delay the investigation, he said.

It is also unclear how Japan can keep tabs on the number of people classed as civilian components, or information about them. Nakatani said after the meeting that as of the end of March there were about 7,000 civilian workers, of which 2,000 were contractors. But Japanese officials admitted the information had not been updated for three years, until the Shimabukuro case.

Government officials also said it is too early to say how the new agreement, once implemented, will effect the number of personnel who could be tried under the Japanese legal system if they were to commit a crime. A defense official said it is possible the number will go up if the U.S. military hires more technical advisers and consultants to cope with more sophisticated weapons systems.