EDITORIAL: Okinawa leader Onaga is right: SOFA needs a sweeping review
Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga on May 23 urged Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to initiate a fundamental review of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), a symbol of deep resentment about the heavy U.S. military presence in Okinawa Prefecture.
“We will be told that Japan’s independence is a myth if the current Status of Forces Agreement remains unchanged,” Onaga said in his meeting with Abe over the recent slaying of a Japanese woman in Okinawa Prefecture.
Onaga referred to the famous remark made in a 1963 speech by then American High Commissioner Paul Caraway, who said the idea of self-government in Okinawa under U.S. military rule was nothing more than a “myth.”
The governor met with Abe at the prime minister’s office in Tokyo following the arrest of an American civilian worker at a U.S. base in Okinawa Prefecture on May 19 on suspicion of abandoning the body of the victim.
The incident has sparked outbursts of anger among people in Okinawa, and a growing chorus there is calling for the removal of all U.S. bases from the prefecture.
To prevent additional crimes or accidents involving U.S. military personnel and related workers, U.S. bases in the prefecture should be consolidated and curtailed quickly.
Onaga’s demand for a revision to SOFA reflects the fact that this agreement, which grants U.S. forces stationed in Japan various privileges, has been a major factor behind the failure to stop crimes involving American soldiers and members of the “civilian component.”
Every time a base-related crime or accident took place, provisions of SOFA that restrict Japan’s criminal investigations and jurisdiction concerning such cases were roundly criticized.
In the latest case, the suspect, a former U.S. serviceman, was arrested by prefectural police on suspicion of committing a crime while off-duty, so no SOFA-related issue has arisen.
If the U.S. military had detained the suspect first, however, the transfer of his custody to Japanese authorities could have been delayed or even refused.
In the 1995 rape of a Japanese schoolgirl by three off-duty U.S. servicemen in Okinawa, the United States detained the suspects and initially refused Okinawa prefectural police’s request for their handover.
In response to the huge wave of anger among Okinawan people triggered by the incident, Washington later agreed to an improvement in the implementation of SOFA, requiring the United States to “give sympathetic consideration” to Japanese requests for the handover of suspects before indictment in cases of vicious crimes.
This rule has since been applied to all types of crimes. But Japanese investigations into crimes involving U.S. military personnel could still be affected by discretionary decisions by the United States.
Despite the improvement, SOFA still needs a sweeping review. While the prefectural government has been demanding reform for many years, the Japanese government has refused to propose a fundamental review of the agreement for a possible revision to the United States.
Onaga also asked Abe to arrange a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama during his visit to Japan.
But Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga voiced a dim view of Onaga’s request, saying, “As a matter of course, issues in the fields of diplomacy and security will be discussed between national governments.”
Onaga is seeking an opportunity to hold direct talks with Obama because the central government has done nothing to solve this problem.
Both South Korea and Germany have achieved revisions to their own status of forces agreements with the United States. Why is the Japanese government unwilling to even ask the United States to consider a revision to the unfair agreement?
Later this week, Obama will come to Japan to attend this year’s summit of the Group of Seven industrial nations in Mie Prefecture.
Abe should, of course, call on Obama to take steps to prevent a recurrence and strengthen discipline on U.S. personnel and related workers. But Abe should also make specific proposals concerning a reduction in the U.S. bases in Okinawa and a revision to the agreement.