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Editorial: Time to scale down U.S. bases in Okinawa

Thoroughly tightening discipline among personnel of U.S. bases in Okinawa is no longer sufficient to prevent heinous crimes involving U.S. forces in the prefecture.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held talks with Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga following the arrest of a former U.S. Marine and currently civilian worker at a U.S. base in Okinawa Prefecture on suspicion of abandoning the body of a woman in the city of Uruma.

Onaga demanded that the central government take fundamental preventive measures including a review of the Japan-U.S. Status-of-Forces Agreement. "The crime occurred because of the presence of U.S. bases. I'd like you to let me talk directly with U.S. President Barack Obama," Onaga was quoted as telling Abe.

The prime minister reportedly responded that Tokyo and Washington will do their utmost to prevent a recurrence and pledged to urge Obama in their bilateral summit meeting later this week to deal strictly with the incident.

It is only natural that both countries will strengthen measures to prevent such crimes. However, it should be noted that although the two countries took similar measures whenever incidents involving U.S. military personnel occurred in Okinawa, such crimes have been repeated.

Okinawa residents are furious about the latest incident, and there are even calls for removing all U.S. bases from the southernmost prefecture.

A rally to protest the incident was held in front of U.S. Kadena Air Base, and a large-scale protest involving prefectural residents is slated to be held in June. The move apparently reminds many members of the public of an incident in which U.S. servicemen sexually assaulted a young girl in Okinawa Prefecture in 1995, sparking anti-base movements and leading to a bilateral agreement the following year that the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma would be closed and its land returned.

What is called into question is not the latest incident alone.

Okinawa has been forced to shoulder the excessive burden of U.S. bases and local residents feel anxiety caused by the existence of the bases although 44 years have passed since Okinawa was returned to Japan's sovereignty in 1972. On the other hand, mainland Japan has not shared part of the burden on the southernmost prefecture. How to rectify this unfair and unreasonable situation is the essence of the issue.

To resolve the problem, it is indispensable to scale down U.S. bases in Okinawa. In particular, it is necessary to achieve the closure of Futenma base, which is a symbol of the burden of U.S. bases on Okinawa, as early as possible. However, this should not result in shifting the base from one place to another within the prefecture. The current plan to relocate the base to the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, should be reviewed.

The Japanese and U.S. governments should begin talks on revising the bilateral status-of-forces agreement.

The status-of-forces accord did not hinder Japanese authorities' investigation into the latest incident because the incident occurred when the suspect was off duty and Okinawa Prefectural Police detained him. If U.S. forces had detained the suspect, they could have refused to hand him over to Japanese law enforcers or taken a long time before doing so.

The repetition of these kinds of incidents has given rise to suspicions that U.S. military personnel may believe that they would be protected by the status-of-forces agreement if they were on their bases.

If the status-of-forces agreement is to be revised to clearly stipulate that Japan can detain a serviceman or a civilian worker at a U.S. base in Japan before indictment in cases where the U.S. was the first to detain the suspect over a crime committed while off duty, it could be effective in deterring such offenses. Japan and the United States should fundamentally reform the system rather than stepping up preventive measures just as a formality.

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