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Japan, U.S. sign pact limiting legal protection of U.S. base workers

Japan and the United States signed on Monday a pact to
effectively remove legal protection over some U.S. military base
workers, hoping the move will deter base-linked crimes in Okinawa
where the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan are hosted.

The signing of the pact, which follows the arrest last year of a
U.S. base contractor over the death of an Okinawa woman, supplements
a bilateral status of forces agreement that has been criticized by
locals who see it as overly protective of U.S. service members and
civilian base workers if they are implicated in crimes.

Based on the supplementary pact, the two countries clarified the
scope of base workers classified as the "civilian component" in SOFA,
who are among those entitled to U.S. primary jurisdiction, or
extended protections, if accused of a crime while on duty. They have
also crafted criteria for contractors qualified for SOFA coverage.

"By steadily implementing this supplementary pact...we expect
the supervision and management toward the civilian component of the
U.S. military in Japan will be more strictly enforced and will lead
to prevent incidents and accidents involving them," Japanese Foreign
Minister Fumio Kishida said before signing the pact with U.S.
Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy.

As of the end of last year, some 7,300 people were categorized
in the U.S. "civilian component" in Japan, of which about 2,300 were
contractors, according to a Japanese Foreign Ministry official. He
said it is not immediately clear how many will be excluded from SOFA
coverage, but the number is likely to be reduced through the
screening process.

A total of eight categories have been set up to define the
civilian component, such as civilians paid by the U.S. government to
work for the U.S. forces in Japan, those working on U.S.
military-operated vessels and aircraft, and those employed by
contractors.

To be recognized as part of the civilian component, contractor
personnel will be required to be "essential" to the mission of U.S.
forces in Japan and have "a high degree of skill or knowledge," such
as being a university graduate, or in possession of a U.S.
government-issued medical or other type of license.

The United States is to report to the Japanese government the
name of contractor personnel if they are recognized as part of the
civilian component and their employer. For people who have been found
to no longer meet the eligibility criteria, the United States will
take procedures to remove their civilian component status.

For example, Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, who was arrested over
the case of the murdered Okinawa woman last May while working for an
Internet firm at Kadena Air Base, does not fit into any of the
eligibility criteria. People in similar roles are certain to be
excluded from SOFA protection, according to the Japanese official.

SOFA provisions have not posed any obstacles to investigations
carried out by the Japanese police because Shinzato, a former Marine,
lived outside the base and the murder occurred while he was off duty.

Under SOFA, Japanese investigators in principle cannot arrest or
indict members of U.S. forces or staff defined within the civilian
component if offenses are deemed to have been committed while on duty.

When offenses are committed while off duty, the primary right to
exercise jurisdiction rests with Japanese authorities. But if the
suspect flees to a U.S. military base, the person will not be handed
over to Japanese authorities until they are indicted, thereby
allowing the suspect to cooperate with Japanese investigations only
on a voluntary basis during that time.

Crimes linked to U.S. bases are a source of constant grievance
among the people of Okinawa, leading them to call for a fundamental
review of SOFA.

The Japanese and the U.S. governments have responded to problems
through operational changes and the 1960 agreement has never been
revised, leaving many Okinawans feeling it still gives U.S. military
and related personnel undue protection from Japanese prosecution.

Kishida, however, emphasized during the signing ceremony that
the formulation of the supplementary pact "draws a line" from past
improvements of the operational implementation of SOFA.

Kennedy also said the pact is "further evidence" that the
Japan-U.S. alliance has never been stronger and that the move is the
"latest milestone" in the two countries' efforts to "modernize" the
alliance.

The Japanese and U.S. governments announced in July they would
clarify the scope of the civilian component, which some critics have
called ambiguous, and have been working over the past months to make
the agreement legally binding. (Jan. 16)


U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy (L)
and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida shake
hands in Tokyo on Jan. 16, 2017. They signed a
pact to effectively remove the legal protection of
some U.S. military base workers, hoping the move
will deter crimes in Okinawa.