The new minister in charge of issues related to Okinawa said Tuesday that the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) should be “re-examined” in light of the fatal crash off Australia of an Okinawa-based U.S. Marine Corps Osprey aircraft, likely overstepping Tokyo’s official line on the politically sensitive pact.
The remark by Tetsuma Esaki could be taken as calling for a revision to the agreement, which is not among the Abe government’s policy goals.
Esaki was already under fire from opposition parties for having said Saturday — just two days after he was appointed — that he would “read aloud” texts prepared by bureaucrats to avoid making mistakes when answering questions in the Diet.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at a news conference in Nagasaki that there is no need for Esaki to resign.
In the Cabinet post, Esaki is tasked with promoting Okinawa’s economy, making his comments about the bilateral agreement unusual.
On Tuesday evening, Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga handed Esaki a written request seeking a drastic amendment to the pact and the withdrawal of U.S. Ospreys deployed in the prefecture.
Accepting the document during their first meeting in the prefectural office in Naha, Esaki only said, “We will do our best to tackle” the issues.
The 1960 pact — which has never been amended — defines the rights of U.S. forces and related personnel in Japan. While the government of Okinawa has called for a revision on the grounds that SOFA favors the U.S. side, the central government has been extremely reluctant to propose a change.
Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. forces in Japan, has long been irritated by crimes committed by U.S. service members, with residents sometimes falling victim. Those who live near U.S. military bases also complain about noise pollution and the risk of accidents.
“It is necessary to review SOFA a little,” Esaki, a six-term Lower House member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, told a news conference earlier Tuesday.
He stopped short of giving details on how he believed the pact should be changed, noting that he is a “layman” on the issue. But he expressed hope for negotiations aimed at amending “what should be amended.”
“The (central) government should properly accept local residents’ feelings and tell the United States what we should tell them even if it takes time,” he said.
Esaki later defended the remark, saying it is aligned with the Abe administration’s policies. That comment was an apparent reference to a supplementary agreement Japan forged with the United States in January to narrow the scope of legal immunity granted to U.S. base workers in a bid to deter crime.
After a MV-22 Osprey crashed off the eastern coast of Australia over the weekend, killing three marines, Tokyo urged the U.S. to ensure the safe operation of the controversial tilt-rotor aircraft. The aircraft involved was among Ospreys deployed to the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa.
On Sunday, the Japanese government asked the United States to refrain from flying Ospreys in Japan, but the U.S. military flew one from the Futenma base on Monday, effectively rejecting the request.
A day later, the top commander of U.S. forces in Okinawa said he sees no need to halt Osprey operations in Japan. At the same time, a Pentagon official said the U.S. Marine Corps may ground its entire air fleet for a safety review in light of the crash, the AFP news service reported Tuesday.
The transport aircraft has been involved in a spate of deadly accidents since its development stage. The crash-landing of an Osprey in shallow waters off Okinawa’s main island late last year revived safety concerns among local residents.
The 73-year-old Esaki, whose portfolio also covers issues related to disputed islands off Hokkaido, was given a ministerial post for the first time in a Cabinet reshuffle last week aimed at shoring up public support for Abe’s administration, which seen its approval ratings plummet.