Tuesday, January 17, 2017

SOFA-tied deal does little to ease crime concerns in Okinawa

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy on Jan. 16 exchange signed documents related to the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement. (Wataru Sekita)
Government officials and residents in Okinawa Prefecture raised doubts that a highly touted Japan-U.S. supplementary agreement will do much to reduce crimes committed by U.S. military personnel or civilian workers at U.S. bases.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida lauded the Jan. 16 agreement, which will define the “civilian component” covered under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), as “groundbreaking.”
However, in Okinawa Prefecture, questions were already being raised on why the central government would think that new definitions will change anything.

Okinawa officials had long sought a revision of a SOFA provision that gives primary jurisdiction to the United States over crimes committed in Japan by military personnel or civilian workers.
Talks on the agreement started after a huge uproar arose in Okinawa over the brutal slaying of a 20-year-old local woman last April. A U.S. civilian worker at the Kadena Air Base has been arrested in the crime.
One criticism of SOFA concerned its ambiguous definition of civilian workers.
The supplementary agreement states that a Japan-U.S. joint committee would specifically define what constitutes civilian workers.
The committee established eight categories for civilians employed not only by the U.S. military, but also other U.S. government agencies as well as entities that provide services for U.S. military personnel based in Japan.
However, the supplementary agreement contained no specific figure on the number of civilians who would no longer be covered by SOFA.
“It is not clear if the latest review will directly lead to a reduction in incidents and accidents” involving those working at U.S. bases, Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga said in a statement issued after the agreement was reached.
He also asked that details about the agreement, such as the total number of civilians at U.S. bases, be submitted expediently to the Okinawa prefectural government and other relevant local governments.
About 7,300 civilians were working at U.S. bases in Japan as of the end of 2016. Of that number, about 2,300 were employed by companies contracted by the U.S. military and defined as civilian workers under the new agreement.
“Even if the range of civilian workers is narrowed, there will be no change in the daily life of those living in Okinawa where U.S. bases are concentrated,” said Ai Tamaki, a 22-year-old university student. “I do not believe the lives of Okinawans will become safer.”
Tamaki was co-organizer of a rally in Okinawa in June 2016 to protest the April killing. It attracted 65,000 people.
Yoshiyuki Uehara, who dealt with the U.S. base issue as a high-ranking Okinawa prefectural government official, said: “It is meaningless to discuss minor points whenever an incident occurs. The time has come to make a comparison of SOFAs the United States has with other nations to determine the problems in order to consider revising SOFA.”
Uehara was vice governor under Hirokazu Nakaima, Onaga’s predecessor.
(This article was compiled from reports by Kayoko Geji and Takufumi Yoshida.)

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