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Editorial: Narrowing definition of 'civilian component' of U.S. military not enough

In response to the recent assault and murder of a woman by a civilian contractor who worked on a U.S. military base in Okinawa Prefecture, the Japanese and U.S. governments agreed to narrow the definition of civilian military employees who are given special protections under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). It is questionable, however, whether such a measure will be effective.

Civilian contractors working on U.S. military bases in Japan, like U.S. military personnel, hold a privileged position under SOFA. However, SOFA vaguely defines civilian contractors, which it calls the "civilian component," as "civilian persons of United States nationality who are in the employ of, serving with, or accompanying the United States armed forces in Japan."

Under the latest agreement, four types of civilian contractors -- those employed under the U.S. government's budget and other sources, crew members of ships, those employed by the U.S. government, and technical advisers and consultants -- are given as types of civilian contractors who would still be given special protections under SOFA. However, these types are given as mere examples, still leaving room for other types of staff to be included in the category of "civilian component."

There were approximately 7,000 civilian contractors working on U.S. military bases in Japan as of late March of this year. Of those workers, subcontractors are expected to be excluded from immunity and other special privileges.

As of late March 2013, there were 27,791 U.S. troops and 1,885 civilian contractors working on U.S. bases in Okinawa Prefecture.

By narrowing down the definition of who constitutes the "civilian component," the number of civilian contractors is expected to decrease. However, there's a possibility that the U.S. military will increase the number of subcontractors under the new rules, so it remains to be seen if the actual numbers of those in the U.S. military's employ will drop.

The latest agreement incorporates additional stipulations, such as reinforcement of the mechanism under which those with resident status in Japan are excluded from civilian contractor status, regular qualification assessments of civilian contractors, and improvements in education and training. All of these measures are absolutely necessary and long overdue.

The bilateral agreement remains, however, far from the drastic revisions to SOFA and the large-scale consolidation and reduction of U.S. military bases that Okinawa has demanded to prevent such incidents from happening again.

SOFA stipulates that crimes committed by U.S. troops and civilian contractors while on duty come under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Even when crimes are committed by such personnel off duty, if U.S. authorities take custody of the suspected perpetrators first, as a general rule, U.S. authorities can keep them in their custody until Japanese authorities indict the suspects. In the case of murders and other heinous crimes, U.S. authorities are encouraged to give "favorable consideration" to Japanese authorities' demands for custody transfers, but are not bound by SOFA to do so.

Okinawa Prefectural Government officials argue that if SOFA were to clearly state that U.S. authorities are required to transfer custody of suspects in such cases to Japanese authorities, its effectiveness in deterring crime would increase.

Education and training of U.S. troops and civilian contractors should also be appropriate and thorough. We seek that U.S. troops be educated in a way that the U.S. military becomes a "good neighbor" to the people of Okinawa.

In the month and a half since the suspect in the assault and murder of an Okinawan woman in the prefectural city of Uruma was arrested, incidents including drunk driving by U.S. military personnel have occurred despite the Japanese government and the U.S. military promising to take steps to prevent such incidents from taking place. Superficial stopgap measures are not enough.

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