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Foreign Ministry changes explanation about status of forces agreement with US

TOKYO -- Foreign Minister Taro Kono has acknowledged that his ministry made changes to an explanation on its website about the status of forces agreement (SOFA) between Japan and the United States about the treatment of American troops stationed in the country.

The bilateral pact has remained as is since its introduction in 1960.

Kono confirmed the explanation revisions in response to a question from Kohei Otsuka of the opposition Democratic Party for the People (DPFP) during House of Councillors Budget Committee deliberations on Feb. 6. Otsuka demanded that the Japanese government try to make U.S. forces follow domestic laws.

U.S. forces are exempt from the application of Japanese laws, and the Foreign Ministry deleted "international laws" as a basis for that arrangement from its "Japan-US Status of Forces Agreement Q & A" webpage in January. But Kono insists that there is "no change in the government's thinking" about the agreement.

In an earlier explanation in Japanese, the ministry had stated that domestic laws are "not applied (to U.S. troops), based on general international laws, unless specified otherwise." The new version introduced on Jan. 11 states that the American forces "are exempt from the enforcement of laws or jurisdiction of the host country in general, unless specified otherwise."

A focus of debate at the budget panel session on Feb. 6 was the interpretation of "general international laws." Kono explained that they are "international customary laws that generally bind countries in the international community." This explanation, however, is contentious both at home and abroad.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations stated in its 2014 opinion on the status of forces agreement that "no provision exists in general international laws that exempts foreign troops from the application of domestic laws of the host country." A 2015 report by the U.S. State Department's International Security Advisory Board on SOFAs also says this: "It is a generally accepted rule of international law that any person present in a country is subject to that country's laws unless that country has consented to some limitation of its jurisdiction."

These opinions may have affected the change in the Foreign Ministry's SOFA explanation. When the DPFP's Otsuka asked Kono during the upper chamber panel deliberations if the previous version was wrong, the foreign minister simply stated that the revision was made "to make the explanation easier to understand."

With or without the revision, the reality remains that American troops stationed in Japan are effectively exempt from the domestic legal system, and they are only required to "respect" Japanese laws. Kono told the budget panel that "American military aircraft have an obligation to respect our domestic laws based on the status of forces agreement."

The DPFP proposed revisions to the agreement in December last year, including a provision obligating American forces to abide by Japanese laws.

(Japanese original by Hiroyuki Asahi, Political News Department)

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