Japan and the U.S. announced Tuesday they will reduce the number of civilians working on American military bases who receive immunity from Japanese prosecution. The move is a step toward addressing outrage in Okinawa over a recent murder case on the island involving a Marine-turned-contractor.
The two sides said civilians covered by the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, will be limited to those who meet more specific criteria than under the current definition. Education and monitoring of American troops and base workers will also be enhanced in an attempt to cut back on crimes.
The largely symbolic change, however, does not involve a formal revision of the agreement.
The arrest in May of a Kadena Air Base contractor accused of killing a 20-year-old local woman sparked renewed anger in Okinawa, where resentment has been simmering over a heavy U.S. troop presence and crime linked to the bases.
A number of drunken driving arrests of American servicemen and contractors in the weeks since, even when disciplinary measures were in place, has aggravated the sense of frustration among Okinawans. On Monday, Okinawan police arrested a technical sergeant at Kadena Air Base for suspected drunken driving.
The announcement Tuesday was made in Tokyo during talks among Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani, U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, and Lt. Gen. John Dolan, commander of the U.S. military in Japan.
Under the changes, base contractors, now described vaguely as “civilian components,” will be classified in more specific terms, to exclude from preferential treatment those without skills and those who are residents of Japan. Murder suspect Kenneth Shinzato is a resident of Okinawa and married to a Japanese.
The new measures “will strengthen and modernize our alliance,” Kennedy said. “We strive to be worthy of the trust and friendship of the communities around our bases in the entire Japanese nation.”
About 50,000 American troops are stationed in Japan under a bilateral security agreement, and about half are based on Okinawa. In addition, 7,000 Americans employed as “civilian components” were at U.S. military bases in Japan as of March, Nakatani said.
He said further efforts to ensure compliance with Japanese law by the civilian employees and the U.S. military are crucial for a stable and strong alliance between the two countries.
Dolan promised a “redoubling” of efforts to educate the troops, their families, and civilian and contract employees so they “understand that all acts of misconduct are unacceptable.”
The current SOFA, signed in 1960, gives U.S. military personnel and civilians employed at American bases in Japan immunity from Japanese criminal procedures in accidents or crime while on duty or on base.
It also allows the U.S. military to hold suspects on base until formal indictment by Japan. Okinawan authorities say the rule denies them proper access to investigate crimes under Japanese law.
Following protests, the U.S. military now usually hands its servicemen over to the Japanese side in serious crimes, though that is not compulsory.