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Husband of woman murdered by American sailor keeps up fight for Japan, US accountability

Masanori Yamazaki holds a photo of his common-law wife Yoshie Sato along with the necklace she was wearing when she was murdered in January 2006, at Yamazaki's home in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, on March 3, 2020. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyama)

YOKOSUKA, Kanagawa -- In January 2006, a 56-year-old woman left the home she shared with her common-law husband and headed to work in this city south of Tokyo, home to a sprawling U.S. Navy base, and never came back. Yoshie Sato was brutally murdered on the street by a U.S. sailor for the contents of her purse.

And since the day of her death, as the list of crimes and violence committed by U.S. military personnel in Japan continues to grow, the man she bade goodbye to that morning has been demanding both the Japanese and United States governments face their responsibility.

Then a bus driver, Masanori Yamazaki met Sato, a cleaner, on the job. Feeling each understood the other's pains and hardships, from divorce to the death of loved-ones, they grew close. Eventually, they became a common-law couple, and planned to marry formally and head out on a cross-country honeymoon when they retired.

About three months before her Jan. 3, 2006 murder, Sato and Yamazaki had bought an apartment together. The last time Yamazaki saw her alive, she had told him his breakfast was waiting for him, and then headed out to work. Shortly after that, she encountered a U.S. sailor acting like he was lost. When he got close to her, the now 36-year-old punched her to the ground, and then stomped on her so hard it ruptured her organs. He had been drinking and had burned through all his cash. He attacked her for money.

Masanori Yamazaki holds a photo of his common-law wife Yoshie Sato along with the necklace she was wearing when she was murdered in January 2006, at Yamazaki's home in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, on March 3, 2020. The necklace is still stained with Sato's blood. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyama)

Shortly after her death, it wasn't a representative of the U.S. military that came to apologize to Yamazaki, but a Japanese Defense Facilities Administration Agency (now part of the Defense Ministry) staffer. The official began by saying the agency "stands with the victim," but after that did nothing but relay the U.S. military's position on the crime.

Yamazaki soon realized how warped was the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), the treaty that governs the treatment of U.S. forces in Japan. In principle, the American military does not have to hand over one of their own accused of a crime on Japanese soil to Japanese authorities until after the suspect has been indicted. In Sato's murder case, Japan asked that the 36-year-old sailor be turned over before he was indicted, and the U.S. military only complied out of "sympathetic consideration" for the Japanese government.

"A person has been murdered, but handing over the suspect is up to the U.S. military's discretion? Japan has no sovereignty," thought an angry Yamazaki. He turned livid when the U.S. Navy's top officer in Japan released a statement saying that he hoped the sad case of Sato's killing could be turned into a chance to make the Japan-U.S. alliance even stronger. "Yoshie wasn't murdered for the sake of the Japan-U.S. alliance," Yamazaki raged.

After Sato's killer was sentenced to life in prison by a Japanese court, Yamazaki filed a civil suit against the Japanese and American governments, accusing them in failing in their supervisory duty. Seven years of litigation later, Japan's Supreme Court ruled that the sailor was liable for damages, but that the two governments were not legally responsible.

Yamazaki, now 72, still lives in the same apartment he shared with Sato. Her belongings, clothes included, are still there, too. Fourteen years after her death, there seems to be no end to crimes committed by U.S. military personnel.

"U.S. military personnel don't suffer the pain (of their actions). That's why they keep doing bad things. As long as the SOFA isn't made fair, I will keep raising my voice," Yamazaki said.

After the Supreme Court confirmed the sailor must pay damages, Yamazaki received a settlement document that would have absolved the United States and the sailor from all further liability. Yamazaki refused to sign it. The convicted man did not have the resources to pay compensation, and the condolence money being offered by the U.S. was just 40% of the amount ordered by the court.

Why, Yamazaki thought, did he have to forgive the sailor, who had never apologized and never paid a penny in compensation for murdering Sato? The case had even been brought up in the Diet, and then Defense Minister Tomomi Inada had stated she would "press the U.S. to correct" its response.

In 2017, Yamazaki agreed to sign the settlement on condition that the Japanese government demand the U.S. government drop the immunity clause from the settlement.

When asked for comment, the Defense Ministry told the Mainichi Shimbun, "We have worked with the U.S. military (on the case), but we cannot comment on the details of the exchanges as this may negatively impact the bilateral relationship of trust."

Yamazaki is continuing his struggle, but says he has not received any updates from the authorities.

(Japanese original by Tadashi Sano, Political News Department, and Asako Takeuchi, City News Department)

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