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Japan Wants More Say Over US Troops on Okinawa

Steve Heman | Tokyo November 26, 2011

Japan's foreign minister is promising Okinawans that Tokyo will press Washington to give Japanese authorities more jurisdiction over U.S. forces on the island. The pledge comes as the United States and Japan are trying to reach a compromise over a controversial relocation of an American air station on the southern Japanese island.

The visit to Okinawa by foreign minister Koichiro Gemba is seen as an attempt to assuage continuing resentment by the islanders towards both Tokyo and Washington about the burden imposed on Okinawa of hosting the U.S. military.

Gemba met with Okinawa's governor just days after the U.S. military conditionally agreed to give Japan increased criminal jurisdiction over American civilian workers at U.S. bases.

The foreign minister said he will continue to do all he possibly can to persuade the United States to make more operational changes to the Status of Forces Agreement, known as SOFA.

Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima told Gemba on Saturday he is grateful for Tokyo's effort towards further modifications of the agreement, which gives the U.S. military initial jurisdiction over its personnel, both soldiers and civilians, who are accused of criminal acts in Japan.

The governor says there is a strong desire among the people of Okinawa for a drastic review of the agreement.

Crimes committed by U.S. military personnel in Japan have repeatedly caused public outrage, compounded by delayed handovers of suspects to Japanese authorities or when those convicted receive punishments perceived as lenient.

Public prosecutors on Okinawa on Friday indicted an American working ona base on the island for a January traffic accident that resulted in the death of a 19-year-old Japanese motorist. U.S. authorities had punished the employee of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES), which is an agency of the U.S. Defense Department, by suspending his driver's license for a five-year period.

The Yomiuri, the top circulating newspaper in Japan, on Saturday quoted "sources close to the Foreign Ministry" saying American officials agreed to modifying how SOFA is implemented because Washington worries the issue could have political ramifications for other important issues. Those include the planned relocation of the U.S. Futenma Marine Air Station on Okinawa.

Tokyo and Washington since 2005 have planned to move the facility to the coastal tourist town of Nago. It is currently located in the middle of the city of Ginowan, which has been built up over the years around the busy military facility.

Despite the current noise and congestion in Ginowan, anti-base groups, backed by some local politicians, oppose just moving the base to another part of the island. They want the facility moved completely from Okinawa to another part of Japan.



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