Okinawa governor Takeshi Onaga calls for revision to Japan-US Status of Forces Agreement

Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga asked Japan's Foreign Minister Taro Kono for a drastic amendment of the Japan-United States Status of Forces Agreement following a series of crimes and accidents involving US military-related personnel in Okinawa.
Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga asked Japan's Foreign Minister Taro Kono for a drastic amendment of the Japan-United States Status of Forces Agreement following a series of crimes and accidents involving US military-related personnel in Okinawa. PHOTO: AFP

NAHA, JAPAN - Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga on Saturday (Dec 2) asked Japan's Foreign Minister Taro Kono for a drastic amendment of the Japan-United States Status of Forces Agreement (Sofa) following a series of crimes and accidents involving US military-related personnel in the south-western island of Okinawa, reported The Mainichi daily on Dec 3, citing Kyodo News agency.

"People in Okinawa have been shocked and are enduring significant anxiety," Onaga told Kono at a meeting held at the Okinawa government building in Naha, The Mainichi said.

The call came a day after a former US Marine based in Okinawa was on Friday (Dec 1) sentenced to life in prison for the rape and murder of a local woman.

Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, 33, who had served as a Marine from 2007 to 2014, was a civilian worker at the US Air Force's Kadena Air Base at the time of the crime on April 28, 2016. He had confessed to the rape of 20-year-old Rina Shimabukuro and the subsequent abandonment of her body.

Onaga said the agreement has been criticised by locals as being "unfair" as they view it as overly protective of US service members and civilian base workers if they are implicated in crimes.

Under the 1960 bilateral pact, the US justice system, instead of Japanese courts, has the primary right of jurisdiction over crimes committed by US base service members and their "civilian component" if the accused was "acting on official duty", Xinhua news agency said.

In response, Kono, who was on his first visit to the island prefecture since assuming his post in August, only told Onaga that the central government will try to reduce the burden of hosting the US bases in Okinawa.

The Japanese government has been reluctant to revise the pact, which has never been revised since taking effect in 1960, according to The Mainichi.

Okinawa hosts the bulk of US military facilities in Japan and a spate of crimes committed by soldiers and base personnel as well as accidents involving military aircraft have outraged Okinawan citizens who have long resented the presence of the bases and their attendant noise on the strategically-important island.

A spate of crimes committed by the US servicemen against local resident have worsened the tension.

Just last month (Nov), US Marine Nicholas James-McLean, 21, was arrested after his truck collided with a vehicle driven by 61-year-old Hidemasa Taira. James-McLean's blood alcohol content was three times the legal limit.

And in the most infamous case, in 1995, three US servicemen kidnapped and gang raped a 12-year-old girl, sparking mass anti-American demonstrations.

These crimes, as well as safety concerns after a series of aircraft emergency landings and crashes, has intensified local opposition to US military presence on Okinawa.

The governor also repeated his call for the central government to give up a plan to relocate US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a less populated, coastal area within Okinawa Island, The Mainichi said.

The Japanese and US governments have been seeking to move the Futenma base from Ginowan to the less-populated Henoko coastal area of Nago. The people of Okinawa, however, demand that the Futenma base be relocated outside the prefecture, according to Xinhua.

Kono said the central government is considering preparing allotted places at American schools located in US military bases in Okinawa for Japanese students in the prefecture.

Tokyo is apparently hoping the proposed move to help Okinawa children improve their English language skills will contribute to cooling long-running tensions between the central and local governments over the planned relocation of the US Marine base within Okinawa, according to The Mainichi.

Earlier in the day, Kono also met Lieutenant-General Lawrence Nicholson, the top commander of US military forces in Okinawa, and called on him to take preventive measures.

"I think it's important to cooperate together for stable stationing of the US military forces in Japan and we need to work together to get the understanding of the local community, what it means to host US military forces," Kono said to Nicholson.

"We want to make every possible effort to maintain the deterrence capability of the Japan-US alliance," Kono added.

Nicholson replied, "We understand our obligation to the community and we can do that better as well. We will continue to look at our behavior, our actions and how we represent our country."

Referring to the recent actions of North Korea, Nicholson said, "(North) Korea has demonstrated their impact on this area and I want you to know that it has never been more important for the alliance between the US and Japan and (South) Korea to work more closely."

Okinawa, despite its small size, hosts almost 75 per cent of the land allotted for US bases in Japan and is where about 26,000 US personnel are stationed.