National / Politics

Japan and U.S. sign deal clarifying civilian protection under SOFA

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

In a bid to reduce crimes committed by U.S. military base workers, Tokyo and Washington on Monday signed a supplementary agreement to limit and clarify the definition of the civilian component protected under the Status of Forces Agreement.

The agreement came almost nine months after a woman was allegedly raped and killed by a contract worker at the U.S. Kadena Air Base in Okinawa Prefecture.

“The agreement will help prevent the recurrences of incidents and accidents involving the U.S. civilian component,” Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said at the signing ceremony, thanking U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, who is scheduled to leave Japan on Wednesday, for her efforts to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance.

“Today’s signing is the outcome of close cooperation between the two governments,” Kishida said. “I look forward to continuing to work with my U.S. counterparts to further deepen our alliance, the linchpin of Japan’s security.”

The signing came less than a week before President-elect Donald Trump is to be sworn in on Friday. Tokyo apparently hoped to settle one of the outstanding issues surrounding U.S. bases in Okinawa.

Uncertainty has been rising over the alliance under Trump, who has said Japan must cough up more cash for hosting bases and being protected under the American security umbrella.

Washington used this opportunity to stress the importance of the alliance by listing the progress made under President Barack Obama. Kennedy also reassured Tokyo that the U.S. is committed to the defense of Japan.

“This agreement underscores the commitment of the United States government to ensure that the U.S. forces are prepared and ready to meet our treaty commitment in the defense of Japan,” she said.

Under the new agreement, contractors must fit at least one of five qualifications to be considered part of the civilian component protected under SOFA.

The qualifications include those who acquired knowledge and skills via higher educational institutions such as college, those who have security clearance and licenses issued by the U.S. government, those who are staying in the country less than 91 days for an emergency mission, and those who will be authorized by the Japan-U.S. Joint Committee.

The agreement is not retroactive and the current contractors will be protected by SOFA until their contracts run out.

But contractors eligible for the status will be reviewed every year. The U.S. government will also notify Tokyo of contractors protected by SOFA, including names and qualifications.

For the first time, both countries also inked a deal defining seven categories of people who will be covered as civilian components, including contractors. The U.S. will notify Tokyo of the number of the civilian component members and contractors each year. As of December, there were about 7,300 civilian component members, of which about 2,000 are contractors.

Tokyo and Washington have lauded the agreement as a key achievement as it is legally binding, a measure of magnitude stronger than implementation improvements both countries have made to SOFA, which has never been revised.

Still, it remains unclear if the agreement will help reduce the number of base workers protected under SOFA, let alone prevent crimes by them.

A Foreign Ministry official said the purpose of the agreement is not to reduce the civilian component, but rather to get a full grasp of its total membership in order to prevent crimes by base workers.

Before this agreement, Tokyo had not been updated with the latest information in a timely manner.

In April, an Okinawa woman, Rina Shimabukuro, was allegedly murdered by Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, a former U.S. Marine, who worked at the Kadena base. The incident stoked outrage among Okinawa residents, whose memories remain raw over the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by three U.S. service members.

After Shimabukuro’s slaying, rallies erupted across Okinawa, where people have long demanded revisions to SOFA, with some even calling for the total withdrawal of U.S. military bases from the prefecture.