A Japan-U.S. supplementary agreement to narrow the scope of the “civilian component” legally protected by the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) has taken effect.
The new deal is part of the two governments’ efforts to prevent brutal crimes linked to U.S. military bases following the slaying of a 20-year-old woman in Okinawa Prefecture last April. A U.S. civilian worker at the Kadena Air Base in the southern island prefecture has been indicted in the case.
The supplementary agreement more clearly defines the term “civilian component” by introducing eight categories of American citizens covered by SOFA. One category is “civilians employed by the U.S. government budget.”
The defendant in the Okinawa murder case, for example, is not covered by SOFA under the new definition.
An increase in such cases will heighten the prospect of transferring jurisdiction over crimes involving Americans working for the U.S. military from the United States to Japan.
The new agreement will also allow Japan to question U.S. decisions on whether specific offenders are part of the civilian component and propose negotiations over such decisions.
This is certainly a step forward.
This supplementary agreement, unlike past improvements in the way SOFA is implemented, represents a legally binding commitment by the countries.
The Japanese government has touted the deal as “groundbreaking.”
But it is doubtful whether the accord will really be effective in preventing crimes linked to U.S. bases.
That’s because the deal will not change in any way the privileged legal status of many U.S. service personnel and civilian base workers, who are exempted from Japanese jurisdiction under SOFA.
The local governments of Okinawa and other prefectures hosting U.S. bases have been calling for revisions to SOFA. They believe that a sense of privilege fostered by SOFA is behind the endless series of crimes and accidents involving U.S. troops and base workers in Japan.
But Tokyo has shown no intention to seek negotiations with Washington over SOFA revisions.
Clearly, the Japanese government is placing greater importance on avoiding friction with the United States than on responding to desperate calls for change in the situation among people in Okinawa.
The fresh pact should not be allowed to mark an end to efforts to deal with the problem.
The two governments should embark on a wholesale review of the situation with an eye toward revising SOFA.
One focal point should be the issue of jurisdiction.
Japanese authorities have the primary right to exercise jurisdiction over crimes and accidents involving off-duty American personnel. If, however, the suspects are held by the U.S. side, they are detained by U.S. authorities until indictment.
After the 1995 case of a gang rape of a schoolgirl in Okinawa by U.S. servicemen, implementation of SOFA was improved, requiring the United States to “give sympathetic consideration” to Japan’s requests for the handover of suspects in such cases before indictment.
But the decision on whether to hand over such suspects remains with the U.S. side.
To ensure effective deterrence against crimes involving American personnel, a provision stipulating that the U.S. government shall grant such requests from Japan should be added to SOFA as a binding rule.
SOFA also gives the U.S. military the prior right to investigate accidents involving U.S. military aircraft and other equipment.
When an Osprey aircraft crash-landed off Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, late last year, Japanese authorities were not allowed to take part in the investigation.
A national security policy is not viable unless it is supported by local residents.
If the governments of Japan and the United States want to ensure stable operations of U.S. bases in Japan under the bilateral security treaty, a further review of SOFA is of vital importance.
The two governments should become clearly aware of this reality.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 18