Two recent incidents have drawn public attention to the Japan-U.S. agreement on handling U.S. military members suspected of committing a crime in Japan. In one case, a sailor arrested after a car accident was transferred to U.S. military authorities. In the other — the robbery and fatal beating of a Japanese woman — the U.S. Navy handed over a suspect to Japanese police. These incidents have raised concerns among Japanese who live near U.S. bases.

On Dec. 22, a vehicle driven by a 23-year-old female sailor serving aboard the USS Kitty Hawk hit and injured three boys at an intersection in Hachioji, Tokyo. Although police arrested her, she eventually was placed in U.S. custody under a provision of the 1960 Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement that says “military authorities of the United States shall have the primary right to exercise jurisdiction over” U.S. military personnel “in relation to offenses arising out of any act or omission done in the performance of official duty.” The U.S. military said the sailor was on her way from Atsugi Naval Air Facility to Yokota Air Base to pick up equipment.

On Jan. 3, Yoshie Sato, 56, was found beaten and unconscious at a building entrance in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, around 6:30 a.m. She later died of internal bleeding. She had been robbed of about 15,000 yen. Mr. William O. Reese, a 21-year-old sailor, also stationed on the Kitty Hawk, was taken into custody by the U.S. military on Jan. 4 after he confessed to the killing. Mr. Reese had been recorded on a security camera installed near the scene of the crime and had returned to the Yokosuka Naval Base wearing bloodstained clothing. Complying with a Japanese request, the U.S. military turned the suspect over to Japanese police on Jan. 7, and he was placed under arrest the same day.

Article 17, Section 5 (C) of the 1960 agreement, stipulates that if accused U.S. military personnel are in U.S. custody they are to remain so until indicted by the Japanese authorities. In principle, unless Japanese police make arrests outside U.S. military facilities, they cannot keep suspects in custody during the investigation stage. The provision has invited criticism from local government officials and residents, who believe it encourages more crime by increasing the chances that some U.S. service members suspected of wrongdoing will get off lightly or to escape punishment altogether.

After the rape of a 12-year-old girl by three U.S. soldiers in September 1995 in Okinawa, Tokyo and Washington reached an agreement under which the U.S. will give “sympathetic considerations” to Japanese requests for transfer of custody “in specific cases of heinous crimes of murder or rape” and also “take full account of any special views of Japan may put forward as to other specific cases it believes should be considered.” This was an improvement in implementation of the 1960 agreement.

The Yokosuka murder case represents the fourth transfer of custody to Japan before an indictment since the 1995 agreement, and the first time that a transfer was made on the same day of the Japanese request. In November 2002, though, the U.S. military did turn down a custody-transfer request in the case of an attempted rape in Okinawa. Despite the 1995 agreement, whether to hand over a suspect or not remains at the discretion of the U.S. military.

Japan and the U.S. reached another agreement in April 2004 under which Japan would permit a U.S. representative to be present during the interrogation of U.S. military suspects who had been transferred into Japanese custody. The Yokosuka case was the first case in which this provision was applied.

There may have been a special factor behind the U.S. authorities’ quick action in the Yokosuka case. Local residents are strongly opposed to the U.S. plan to make Yokosuka the home port of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that will succeed the conventionally powered Kitty Hawk. The U.S. authorities may have wanted to prevent an outburst of anger among Yokosuka and Kanagawa Prefecture citizens. And what if the sailor had not confessed to the crime?

The Japanese Foreign Ministry says that among similar status of forces agreements involving the U.S. the 1960 Japan-U.S. agreement is the most advantageous for the host country. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi reportedly has no intention to seek revisions of the agreement. But fear and dissatisfaction will continue to fester among local residents. Resentment is particularly strong over the fact that Japanese authorities cannot take action if a U.S. service member involved in a car accident on a Japanese road happens to be on official duty. Given that many U.S. bases in Japan are in residential areas, it is only reasonable for Japan to seek revisions of the agreement while ensuring the maximum protection of suspects’ legal rights.

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