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Japan looks at concluding de facto revision of SOFA with regard to U.S. base workers

by June 26, 2016 General

The government is looking at concluding a new accord with the United States on the definition of civilian base workers covered by the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement, following the murder of a woman in Okinawa Prefecture by such a person, it was learned Sunday.

Japan hopes to highlight the envisaged accord as a de facto revision to SOFA, a step further than improving the implementation of SOFA.

With SOFA to be kept in place, however, it is uncertain whether the accord will satisfy government officials and residents in Okinawa who have called for a drastic revision to SOFA.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suggested Wednesday that he sees the need to define more strictly the scope of civilian workers at U.S. military bases in Japan covered by SOFA. “It is ridiculous that a person like the suspect is protected by SOFA,” Abe told reporters in Itoman, Okinawa.

A civilian worker at a U.S. military base in Okinawa was arrested in May for allegedly abandoning the body of a Japanese woman in Okinawa. The suspect, a former marine, this month faced additional charges of murder and attempted rape.

Under SOFA, which governs the U.S. military’s presence in Japan, the civilian component of the U.S. armed forces in Japan is defined as those with U.S. citizenship who are employed by or work for U.S. bases. The pact also covers their dependents.

Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, 32, the suspect in the murder case, had no direct employment relationship with the U.S. military, with a U.S. official saying he should not have been given special status under SOFA.

At their meeting in Singapore on June 4, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani and U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter agreed to review the range of civilian base workers under SOFA.

In 2014, Japan and the United States agreed to conclude a SOFA-related supplementary agreement to enable Japanese environmental investigations on the premises of U.S. military bases in Japan. Abe regards the accord as an effective revision to SOFA.

Reducing the scope of civilian base workers under SOFA by striking the envisaged supplementary agreement will give Japan greater judicial jurisdiction over incidents involving Americans in Japan. “If the United States agrees to the proposed accord, it would be very meaningful,” a government official said.

Still, prefectural government officials in Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military installations in Japan, are pushing for a drastic revision to SOFA. “The understanding of U.S. servicemen that they are protected by SOFA can cause crimes,” a senior official said.

According to the Defense Ministry, civilian workers at U.S. military bases and their dependents totaled 5,203 across Japan as of March 2013.

Under SOFA, the United States has the primary right to exercise jurisdiction over offenses by American servicemen and civilian workers arising from any act in the performance of official duty.

Even in off-duty offenses, the United States does not need to transfer U.S. suspects to Japanese custody before indicting them. But based on an accord for the improved implementation of SOFA, the United States is supposed to give sympathetic consideration to Japanese requests for pre-indictment handovers of suspects when serious crimes, such as murder, have been committed.