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Japan-US SOFA wildly different from US agreements in Germany, Italy: Okinawa Pref.

Paratroopers from both the German and U.S. militaries board a transport aircraft at the U.S. Air Force's Ramstein Air Base in December 2017. (Photo courtesy of the Ramstein Air Base website)

TOKYO/NAHA -- A review of status of forces agreements (SOFA) between the United States and Japan, Germany, and Italy, respectively, by the Okinawa Prefectural Government has turned up startling facts that indicate how little Japan has settled for in its accord with the U.S.

    Due to a series of incidents involving United States military aircraft in Japan, the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which stipulates the rights of U.S. forces based in Japan, has come under renewed scrutiny.

    The Okinawa Prefectural Government, which seeks a renegotiation of the agreement as it serves as a basis for the U.S. military to flaunt its privileged position, investigated SOFAs between the U.S. and Germany and Italy, respectively -- the two other former Axis powers aside from Japan, who lost in World War II.

    In early February, three Okinawa prefectural officials from the Executive Office of the Governor visited four municipalities in Germany and Italy that are home to U.S. air force bases, where they interviewed local leaders and residents. The group's final report was released in late March.

    Ramstein Air Base, which serves as United States Air Force in Europe (USAFE) headquarters, is located in southwestern Germany. The U.S. military is subject to German aviation laws, and as a general rule, is prohibited from flying aircraft between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Two German police officers are always on duty inside the base and exercise police authority.

    Additionally, there is a committee dedicated to reducing noise from military aircraft. U.S. military commanders, the mayors of five surrounding municipalities, and at least 20 representatives from civic organizations are part of the committee, and the U.S. military reports the number of takeoffs and landings of its aircraft late at night and early in the morning, among other data, to the committee members.

    One mayor told the Okinawa prefectural officials that they had a positive impression of the U.S. military's efforts to reduce noise.

    Germany has the authority to give permission and approval -- or not -- for drills and exercises by U.S. troops in the country. The Okinawa prefectural officials who went on the inspection trip were shocked at the difference between how the U.S. military operated in Germany as opposed to Japan. "It's unthinkable in Okinawa for U.S. forces to provide municipal governments their flight data," one official said. "I don't think such information is even given to Japan's central government."

    The Italian military, meanwhile, has administrative control of U.S. bases in Italy, and Italian commanders are constantly on base. According to the deputy mayor of the village of Aviano in northern Italy, home to Aviano Air Base -- out of which the U.S. Air Force operates -- the U.S. military is subject to Italian aviation laws, and a regional committee exists at the provincial level. Moreover, the flight routes of U.S. military aircraft are changed based on demands made by municipalities.

    The U.S. military did not operate in this manner in either Germany or Italy when Allied troops first occupied both countries right after World War II. By 1993, "The Agreement to Supplement the Agreement between the Parties to the North Atlantic Treaty regarding the Status of their Forces with respect to Foreign Forces stationed in the Federal Republic of Germany," which had been signed in 1951, had gone through three revisions, and ultimately stipulated that U.S. military bases were under German sovereignty.

    As for Italy, restrictions on U.S. military aircraft were significantly enhanced after a U.S. Marine Corps aircraft severed the cable of a ski lift at a ski resort, killing 20 people in 1998. "This is Italy," former Italian Prime Minister Lamberto Dini told the Okinawa prefectural officials. "All U.S. military activities must be approved by an Italian commander."

    Yujin Fuse, a journalist in Japan who is well-versed in defense-related issues, said, "This is probably the first time that a Japanese municipal government has conducted on-site inspections of other countries' status of forces agreements. The central government of Japan should have been the one to carry out such studies and release the results to the public."

    In contrast to the agreements that Germany and Italy have, respectively, with the U.S. military, under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, Japanese laws, in principle, do not apply to U.S. troops in Japan. Japan's Civil Aeronautics Act stipulates minimum safe altitudes set by government ordinances to ensure the safety of people, property and aircraft, but U.S. military aircraft are not subject to these minimums. The Japanese government does not even have the authority to place restrictions on U.S. military drills and exercises.

    Approximately 70 percent of total land area exclusively used by U.S. military facilities in Japan lies in Okinawa Prefecture. But a bilateral agreement on noise reduction in the prefecture is hardly ever observed by the U.S. military.

    In 1996, the governments of Japan and the U.S. signed agreements on aircraft noise abatement countermeasures at Kadena Air Base and Air Station Futenma, which would, in principle, restrict flights of U.S. military aircraft between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. However, 1,420 takeoffs and landings of U.S. aircraft were recorded during that flight-restriction period through visual confirmation by the Defense Ministry's Okinawa Defense Bureau in fiscal 2017 (tallied at the end of February 2018). In the same span of time, 940 complaints regarding aircraft noise and other issues were filed by residents in the town of Kadena, 3.6 times the total number in fiscal 2016.

    According to the Kadena Municipal Government, complaints from residents have surged since November 2017, when 12 F35-A stealth fighters were temporarily deployed to the U.S. Air Force's Kadena Air Base. "Residents are upset that U.S. military aircraft are flying during times when people are asleep," said Haruhiko Gaja, chief of the Kadena Municipal Government's town-base liaison section. "The situation hasn't changed, despite our complaints against the U.S. military."

    Okinawa prefectural residents are not the only ones who have been affected. Airspace in the western part of Hiroshima Prefecture is used for drills by the U.S. military. A tally by the Hiroshima Prefectural Government showed that there were 814 sightings of low-altitude flights by U.S. military aircraft in the first half of the 2017 fiscal year -- exceeding 800 sightings for the first time in four years. Of these, nearly 80 percent were concentrated in the western Hiroshima Prefecture town of Kitahiroshima. The prefectural government and other parties have demanded that the Chugoku-Shikoku Defense Bureau take action, but according to city assembly member Koji Mino, "They only respond with textbook responses that they 'do not know' even when we ask for the name of the unit conducting the drills."

    "A status of forces agreement between equals serves as a touchstone for realizing democracy, but Japan does not take the shape of a sovereign nation," Hiromori Maedomari, a professor at Okinawa International University and an expert on military base economics, told the Mainichi Shimbun. "The governments of Germany and Italy have negotiated with the U.S. military keeping the need to guarantee their citizens' safety and rights in mind. They are the polar opposite of the Japanese government, which remains silent."

    Fuse, meanwhile, added, "The extent of Japan's anomalousness -- which could be characterized as an infringement of sovereignty by the U.S. military -- has become crystal clear through the Okinawa Prefectural Government's survey. Japan should be working toward a revision of the Japan-U.S. SOFA before any discussion about changing the Constitution."

    (Japanese original by Hojin Fukunaga, Foreign News Department, and Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau)

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