Responding to public anger in Okinawa over the April rape and murder of a 20-year-old local woman by an American civilian working for the U.S. military, the Japanese and U.S. governments have agreed to change the way the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) is implemented. The change, which does not revise SOFA’s text itself, is far too small to appease local frustration with repeated crimes associated with the disproportionately large presence of the U.S. forces in the prefecture.
The suspect, Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, was a former marine working for a cable television and internet-related company at the U.S. Kadena Air Base. Under the agreement, the “civilian component” under SOFA will be narrowed down to four categories: civilians paid by the U.S. government to work for the U.S. military in Japan; those working on vessels and aircraft operated by the U.S. military; those working for the U.S. government and staying in Japan solely for official purposes in connection with the U.S. forces; and technical advisers and consultants staying in Japan at the official invitation of and solely for the U.S. military. SOFA defines “civilian component” as “civilian persons of the United States nationality who are in the employ of, serving with, or accompanying the U.S. armed forces in Japan.” The new accord also excludes those with permanent residency status in Japan — like Shinzato — from the civilian component.
In theory, narrowing the scope of civilian workers for the U.S. forces covered by SOFA will lead to an increase in the number of workers who fall under Japan’s primary jurisdiction in the event they commit crimes here. Under SOFA, the U.S. has primary jurisdiction over members and civilian workers of the military if the alleged offenses occur while they are on duty. However, the U.S. has the right to determine whether or not they were on duty when they committed the alleged crimes. If a suspect off duty at the time of the offense escapes into a U.S. military facility and is detained by the authorities there, the suspect will in principle not be handed over to Japanese investigators as long as the person is not indicted.
The agreement may have only limited effect in reducing crimes by civilian workers, given their relatively small numbers. In 2013, the number of military servicemen, their dependents and dependents of civilian workers totaled 50,000 in Okinawa, but there were just 2,000 civilian workers at the U.S. bases in that prefecture.
The local police were able to arrest Shinzato because he was off duty when he allegedly killed the woman. But whether crimes are committed by U.S. military servicemen or civilian workers and whether the crimes occur when the offenders are on duty or not do not make any difference to the people in Okinawa. They are angry over the prevalence of crimes committed by people with ties to the U.S. forces.
According to police statistics, Okinawa saw 574 heinous crimes committed by U.S. military members and U.S.-affiliated civilian workers and their relatives — with 741 investigated — since its reversion to Japan in 1972 to the end of last year, including 26 cases of murder, 129 cases of rape, 394 cases of burglary and 25 cases of arson. A prefectural government official says there is a conceit on the part of U.S. military members and workers attributable to the sense that they are protected by a special status under SOFA.
To protest the April rape and murder, a reported 65,000 Okinawans, including Gov. Takeshi Onaga, took part in a rally last month and adopted a resolution demanding a “drastic revision of SOFA.” Onaga said that at the least, Japan should have primary jurisdiction over offenses committed off-base by people related to the U.S. forces.
People in the rest of Japan must not think they have nothing to do with the problems confronting Okinawa Prefecture. They should pay serious heed to what the governor said because the same problems can happen wherever U.S. bases are located. As of the end of March, there were 7,000 American civilians working for the U.S. forces in Japan. The fact that the government was in the dark as to the corresponding numbers for 2014 and 2015 because the U.S. did not even bother to notify Tokyo of the figures is deplorable.
The government should carefully listen to Onaga’s call and think again about whether the action it has taken addresses the concerns of local residents. Continued frustration over the SOFA issue could deepen the schism in the relationship between Okinawa and the national government over the latter’s plan to build a new U.S. military facility on Okinawa Island to replace the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma located there in the city of Ginowan.
The government has in the past improved the implementation of SOFA to Japan’s advantage. For example, the U.S. is supposed to give “sympathetic consideration” to requests to turn over suspects protected under SOFA who have allegedly committed serious crimes like murder and rape even if they have not yet been prosecuted. Still, the government has never sought to revise SOFA itself. We should question whether this attitude is worthy of an independent nation.
South Korea has revised its SOFA with the U.S. twice. Germany revised its agreement with the U.S. for the third time in 1993, under which, in principle, German laws are applied to the U.S. forces’ use of their bases in Germany and military training at the bases. The U.S. needs the German defense minister’s approval for training outside the bases. The U.S. forces are required to examine whether its activities are environmentally desirable. To ensure that the laws are observed, government officials can enter the bases.
Given these example, there should be no excuse for the government to not try to revise the SOFA with the U.S. to improve its provisions.