Japan and the United States have announced that they agreed “in substance” on a new accord that paves the way for on-site environmental surveys by Japanese authorities inside U.S. military bases in this country. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida says he will do his best to wrap up the new accord at an early date.

However, details of the agreement are still pending and it is not clear how much effective power will be given to local governments hosting the bases to probe possible environment problems inside the base premises. The effects of the planned accord will be in doubt unless it provides clear-cut powers to the local authorities.

The agreement effectively represents a response to Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima’s call for an accord on local governments’ environmental surveys inside U.S. bases as a quid pro quo for his go-ahead last year for land reclamation work needed for construction of a new facility on the coast of Nago in northern part of Okinawa Island to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on the central part of the island.

It has been speculated that the announcement made less than a month before the Nov. 16 Okinawa gubernatorial election — with the key details pending — may be aimed at creating the impression that the government was doing its job to respond to Okinawa’s concerns over U.S. base problems, thereby supporting the incumbent’s re-election bid.

Under Article 3 of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, the U.S. military can take “all the necessary measures” for the “establishment, operation, safeguard and control” of its facilities and areas in Japan.

SOFA does not impose any duty on the U.S. military to protect the environment inside its bases in Japan or provide for any means for Japanese authorities to conduct on-site probes within the bases.

As such, it is extremely difficult for local governments hosting the bases to find out what’s happening inside the bases — even when environmental problems such as soil pollution from chemical substances are suspected — or to have the U.S. side take corrective measures.

Concern has particularly been strong in Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of the U.S. military presence in Japan.

The draft agreement does not mention whether the new accord, to be called the Agreement on Cooperation in the Field of Environmental Stewardship Relating to the U.S. Armed Forces in Japan, will include a guarantee that local governments officials will be allowed to enter U.S. bases for environmental surveys if they make such a request.

It only says the new accord will address the establishment and maintenance of procedures for Japanese authorities to have appropriate access to U.S. facilities and areas. Such access will be given when an environmental pollution incident has occurred inside the bases, and when field surveys become necessary before bases are returned to Japanese control.

The biggest problem with the planned accord is that there will be room for the U.S. side to refuse entry to local officials citing the provision in Article 3 of SOFA that in essence gives the U.S. military exclusive rights over base management. The new accord will not require the U.S. military to take environmental protection steps, either.

Under the new accord, the U.S. armed forces in Japan will adopt environmental standards incorporating stricter provisions from among Japanese and U.S. regulations, but no details of the standards have yet been made public.

In case the U.S. military takes steps for environmental protection inside the bases, the costs of such work will be shouldered by the Japanese government — an additional financial burden on Tokyo’s part that comes on top of the cost of paying for housing construction for U.S. servicemen and their dependents, as well as the utilities expenses at the U.S. bases.

Tokyo and Washington should make public steps that guarantee local governments access to U.S. bases for environmental surveys and ensure that the U.S. military provides accurate information on the environmental conditions on its bases. Otherwise the announcement of the tentative agreement will invite criticism that it is a political ploy aimed at helping Nakaima, who is reported to be facing an uphill battle for re-election after his flip-flop over the Futenma relocation issue.

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