The Japan Times [June 28, 2004] "Treading too softly on SOFA"

June 28, 2004 12:00 AM

The Japan Times [June 28, 2004]
"Treading too softly on SOFA"
By Kiroku Hanai

In April, an epoch-making event occurred in the history of the Japan-U.S. security alliance. Two Diet members of the governing Liberal Democratic Party met with U.S. State and Defense Department officials to ask Washington to consider overhauling the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement.

Taro Kono and Hideaki Omura, who serves as secretary general of the Parliamentarians' Union, made the representation on behalf of the "association to secure a true Japan-U.S. partnership through a revised SOFA," a policy group of 93 LDP lawmakers.

It is the first time that governing party lawmakers have made such a request as the first step in establishing an equal partnership under SOFA. The news, however, received scant attention in the Japanese media, except in Okinawa.

State Department officials reportedly told the Japanese lawmakers that there were no problems with SOFA at present and that Washington had received no request for its revision from Tokyo. Omura acknowledged that the government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi might be reluctant to initiate talks on the issue as his administration's political survival would be in danger if negotiations appeared to gain little.

Omura says, however, the ball is now in the U.S. court, and he hopes to hold Japan-U.S. expert-level talks on the issue this autumn in Tokyo.

Since Shigeru Yoshida ruled Japan as prime minister and LDP president in the immediate postwar years, the governing party has consistently maintained a policy of avoiding trouble with the United States. Japan depends on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for its security, and there are perceptions that revising SOFA could undermine the whole Japan-U.S. security system.

As a result, the Foreign Ministry has tread carefully regarding SOFA. Shunji Yanai, former Japanese ambassador to the U.S., says this stance is inevitable since Japan hosts U.S. military installations for its protection. "It would be unreasonable for Japan to demand an equal partnership with the U.S. by ignoring the reality," Yanai says.

Even in the post-Cold War situation, LDP leadership groups are reluctant to propose a revision of SOFA, preferring instead to improve its implementation in the face of continuing North Korean military threats and on-and-off regional conflicts. However, patience is wearing thin over the U.S. military presence in Okinawa, which hosts 75 percent of all U.S. military installations in Japan.

In 1996, the U.S. agreed to return 11 military installations in Okinawa to Japanese control, but only two of them have been returned so far. Reversion of the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station is pending, with construction of a substitute facility likely to take 10 years.

Meanwhile, anti-U.S. sentiment in Okinawa has been fueled recently by the following reports in Okinawan newspapers:

U.S. authorities have yet to pay their share of court-awarded compensation to victims of noise pollution at Kadena Air Base. The payments were ordered in 1998 in the first round of legal battles over noise. Japan and the U.S. have failed to agree on their share.

Unlike Japanese, U.S. military personnel and civilians in Okinawa, as well as their dependents, are issued license plates for privately owned automobiles without having to produce documents affirming that they have a parking space. This irregular situation has persisted for six years.

These issues are covered by SOFA, but U.S. authorities have failed to observe their part of the obligations. Japan has taken no action to remedy the situation.

Problems relating to SOFA are not limited to Okinawa. U.S. authorities have failed to pay their share of court-ordered compensation to victims of noise pollution at Yokota Air Base in Tokyo and at Atsugi Naval Air Station in Kanagawa Prefecture. At Sasebo Naval Base, Nagasaki Prefecture, however, U.S. military personnel stationed there must submit proof of parking space for
their privately owned cars.

Foreign Ministry officials, responding to questions from an Okinawa lawmaker before Diet committees, acknowledged that they had negotiated with U.S. authorities on the above-mentioned issues but refused to disclose reasons for U.S. noncompliance.

A draft of a revised SOFA, worked out by the LDP group seeking revision, says agreements reached by the Japan-U.S. Joint Committee should be published. That is not enough, though, given recent problems in Okinawa and many other places. In my opinion, SOFA should stipulate that if agreement on an issue is not reached after more than three years of negotiations, the contents of the discussions should be disclosed.

The LDP policy group's activities have been touched off by a campaign in Okinawa Prefecture and a similar one by a council of governors from 14 prefectures hosting U.S. military installations. A wide gap in the level of concern toward the U.S. military presence exists between Okinawans and other Japanese.

For example, the Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper in Okinawa carried 35 editorials on the issue between January and May, while the national daily Asahi Shimbun published only one. National dailies mostly ignore political and city news related to the U.S. military presence. I believe that major dailies should take up the issue more often from a national perspective.

Last month in Tokyo, Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine told a newspaper-sponsored open discussion on the U.S. military presence in Okinawa Prefecture that most Japanese are little aware of the fact that Okinawa hosts 75 percent of U.S. military bases in Japan. Japanese should recognize the U.S. military presence as a national issue, he added.

We should try to understand the plight of Okinawans, who are forced to carry double burdens stemming from inequalities between Japan and the U.S. and between Okinawa and mainland Japan. Japan has tolerated the vested interests of U.S. forces for almost 60 years since the end of the Pacific War. To make the U.S. military give up some of its interests, not only politicians but also the Japanese public in general should make a strong commitment toward that end.