Okinawa seeks new rules

Mainichi Shimbun, Monday 2 September 2000

The Okinawa Prefectural Government is demanding a review of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, which defines the legal status of U.S. military forces in Japan and the management and operations of the U.S. bases in Japan. The agreement, based on the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, was reached in 1960, the same year that the treaty was signed. It has never been revised.

While its enforcement was once slightly altered for the 1995 rape trial of three U.S. Marines in the light of the seriousness of the incident, the agreement itself was left untouched. Crimes committed by U.S. military personnel have risen, and environmental pollution within the bases has escalated. Because the Status of Forces Agreement gives the U.S. military special privileges, voices in Okinawa have been growing louder for this unfair treaty to be overhauled.

The prefectural government endorsed an 11-point proposal demanding revision of the pact and formally requested the national governments of both Japan and the United States to consider its recommendations. Okinawa officials feel that this is the least the two governments can do in the light of Okinawa's acquiescence to the construction of a replacement heliport for the Marine Corps Futenma Air Station. Other prefectures hosting U.S. bases fully back the Okinawan initiative.

All 11 points suggested by the Okinawan government deal closely with the daily lives of local residents. The provision to counter environmental pollution, for instance, seeks compliance with domestic environmental protection laws. Should there be discharges of environmentally hazardous waste materials, such as PCBs, the proposal demands that the U.S. military take measures to restore the base to its original condition. A former U.S. communications facility was found to be contaminated with hazardous chemicals, seriously impeding the use of the land after its return to Japan.

There is a similar environmental clause in the agreement between the German government and the forces of the North American Treaty Organization. The pact calls for compliance with Germany's environmental protection laws and outlines NATO's responsibility for restoring the bases to their original state in the case of environmental damage.

The other 10 points in the Okinawa proposal deal with crimes, accidents, and other incidents involving U.S. military personnel. In case a soldier fails to pay damages as ordered by a local court, Japan and the United States are asked to make up the difference. And salary deductions are demanded to cover the cost of raising Amerasian children born to U.S. servicemen and Japanese women, when such payment is ordered by the court. These are realistic demands designed primarily to protect those in socially vulnerable positions.

The Japanese government has shown its willingness to accept the environmental clause as an appendix to the Status of Forces agreement, but it has shown its reluctance to revise the text of the agreement itself. Government officials maintain that the pact rests on a very delicate balance and revising it at this stage would be like opening Pandora's box. This does not mean, though, that the agreement should be left untouched.

Inasmuch as the pact was signed during the height of the Cold War, many of its provisions are doubtlessly outdated. There is a need for the Japanese government to review the agreement carefully with Washington and to implement necessary reforms.