Revising Status of Forces Agreement

The meeting earlier this month addressing the United States-Japan defense cooperation guidelines among Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel failed to address most of the core issues held in place by the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).

That agreement, never formally revised over more than 50 years, is in desperate need of change. Despite the huge changes in economic conditions, political relations, military technology and other conditions in the Pacific region, the SOFA has remained exactly as it was when first signed in 1960.

Before the meeting, governors from 14 prefectures where U.S. military bases are located submitted a list of proposed revisions. Unfortunately their requests were not included in the high-level discussions. Most importantly, the governors asked for a reconsideration of the purposes of the bases and a review of whether the agreement is helping to improve base-related community conditions. This request is reasonable.

While the U.S. military was generous in helping with the tsunami and earthquake disaster in 2011, the actual environmental conditions on the bases remain secret. The long history of dumping of dangerous chemicals and other military refuse deserves full disclosure and monitoring. With the current agreement, however, that is unlikely to happen. Such information about the bases does not have to be released, according to SOFA.

Noise pollution is no less a serious issue. U.S. military aircraft taking off from and landing at the bases disturbs everyone in the flight paths. The impact of newer and louder aircraft, such as the MV-22 Osprey hybrid tilt-rotor aircraft, could not have been foreseen when the agreement was signed in 1960. These changes need to be taken into account in a thorough revision of SOFA.

A continual sticking point in negotiations about the bases is the treatment of American service members accused of crimes. A new agreement should oblige the U.S. to turn over suspects with the provision that they be accorded the same legal treatment in Japan as they would be given in the U.S. That would mean a change in Japanese treatment of suspects by having a lawyer present during questioning and by taping the entire interrogation process. If Japan conceded this point, the U.S. military would have little reason to refuse to turn suspects over to the jurisdiction of the Japanese legal system.

Japan is a very different country from 1960 when SOFA was originally signed. The U.S.-Japan military alliance needs to confront the many problems openly and urgently, work toward a responsible relocation of bases and establish a new agreement that recognizes current realities.