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Okinawans frustrated with Japan-U.S. accord to review civilian personnel rules

NAHA -- Okinawans voiced criticism and concern over an agreement reached between Japan and the United States on July 5 to narrow the scope of civilian military workers at U.S. bases, casting doubt on the effectiveness of the accord, as it failed to make fundamental revisions to the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) as hoped by local residents.

Anti-U.S. base sentiment has been growing in Okinawa Prefecture in the wake of the alleged rape and murder of a local woman by a former Marine and civilian employee who worked at an internet-related company on Kadena Air Base in the island prefecture. In an effort to mitigate such feelings among Okinawan locals, the Japanese and U.S. governments on July 5 agreed to categorize civilian personnel working for U.S. bases in Japan into four categories, narrowing the scope of such workers included under the SOFA.

In regard to the agreement, Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga told reporters that he will keep a close eye on how negotiations between the two governments proceed and will ask the central government to elaborate on the accord to check whether it would be effective.

Under the latest Japan-U.S. accord, job types assumed by civilian personnel are narrowed down. As a result, private firm employees with a low level of specialized skills, such as the former Marine arrested over the alleged rape-murder case, will not be considered as a civilian military worker. However, the bilateral pact stopped short of revising the SOFA, under which the U.S. is given priority in jurisdiction over crimes committed by the military-related personnel.

Susumu Inamine, mayor of the city of Nago, which hosts the U.S. Marine Corps Camp Schwab, slammed the latest bilateral agreement at a news conference, saying, "It's too far removed (from the fundamental revisions to the SOFA)."

Takashi Kishimoto, deputy director-general of an activist group based in Okinawa that opposes a plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within the prefecture, expressed anger over the bilateral accord, saying, "The Japanese and U.S. governments didn't even listen to Okinawa's demand to at least revise the SOFA amid growing anti-U.S. base sentiment that has led some residents to push for the removal of all bases from the prefecture."

Naha resident Yoko Kinjo, 61, who was assaulted by a U.S. soldier when she was 17 years old, commented, "Why can't the (Japanese) government make fundamental revisions (to the SOFA)? The latest accord strikes to me as a political performance ahead of the House of Councillors election."

Suzuyo Takasato, 76, co-leader of an organization called "Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence," cast doubt on the effectiveness of the latest agreement, saying, "The review (of civilian personnel) only appears as manipulative tactics."

Disappointment with the agreement came from even within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). LDP Okinawa chapter vice chairman Masatoshi Onaga said, "While it is a step forward to have narrowed down the scope of the military personnel whose roles have often been stretched, I'm not pleased that the accord didn't touch on possible revisions to the SOFA, such as reviewing the rules on criminal jurisdiction."

Okinawa International University professor Manabu Sato, who specializes in U.S. politics, says the review in the latest agreement alone will not work as a deterrent against crimes committed by U.S. military personnel. "In addition to the revisions to the SOFA, prevention of crimes committed by military personnel relies on U.S. forces' efforts to educate their soldiers."

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