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'Beware of Y license plates': Okinawans struggle for justice over US soldiers' accidents

A woman who was the victim of a traffic accident caused by a member of the U.S. military is seen at the site of the accident in the village of Yomitan, Okinawa Prefecture on Feb. 13, 2020. She had cut her long hair short to reduce pain in her neck she suffers as aftereffects from the collision, and she has yet to receive compensation from the U.S. soldier responsible. (Mainichi/Masanori Hirakawa)
U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is seen from a Mainichi Shimbun aircraft in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, in this June 12, 2019 file photo. (Mainichi)

YOMITAN, Okinawa -- A scuba diving instructor who moved to the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa from mainland Japan six years ago suffered a painful accident which left her with an acute understanding of the infamous reputation held by "Y license plate" U.S. military personnel vehicles on the islands.

At 1:15 a.m. on May 29, 2017, the woman was driving home from a work goodbye party when she stopped at the traffic lights on National Route 58, in the village of Yomitan. She suddenly heard a strange noise behind her, and at that same moment, a fierce shock ran through her body. Another vehicle had struck hers and pushed it into the middle of the intersection. She was barely able to get herself out of her car as concerned passersby who had rushed to the scene called out to her, and she broke down crying on the spot from fear and the pain she felt throughout her body.

After she was taken to the hospital by ambulance, police asked her about the incident, and she was informed that the other party that had been driving the vehicle that crashed into hers was a member of the U.S. military. Vehicles affiliated with U.S. forces on Okinawa are known as "Y numbers," in reference to the letter that appears on their license plates. Since she'd started working at her scuba diving shop, her boss there had warned her repeatedly to "beware of Y license plates."

The U.S. soldier involved in the accident had fled the scene, but was found by prefectural police a few hours later and an alcohol breath test found he was four times over the legal limit. He was arrested on the spot. The woman then found herself caught in a situation that she had never imagined she would be in.

Immediately after the incident, she was visited by a number of people who left her consolation money, including the commander and the legal advisor from the legal department of the U.S. military base in Okinawa the soldier belonged to, an Okinawa Defense Bureau section chief, and others with titles unfamiliar to her.

But the U.S. soldier's insurance company, which she had expected would move forth with proceedings swiftly, gradually reduced its contact with her. She needed to receive regular outpatient treatment for 14 months, and was left with persistent pain in her neck and back. Concerned that the lack of movement from the insurers meant the money wouldn't be paid out, she eventually filed a damages lawsuit against the U.S. soldier.

The Naha District Court's Okinawa branch handed down a judgment in November 2019 ordering the U.S. soldier to pay damages of 2.91 million yen, or approximately $27,209. But by then his whereabouts were already unknown, and the judgment document still has not been delivered to him.

Because Article 9 of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) stipulates that U.S. military-related individuals can enter and leave Japan without going through immigration procedures, there is no way to confirm whether the soldier has left the country or not. Procedures that significantly differed from those that regularly take place in Japan forced the woman to recall the words "beware of Y license plates."

It should be noted that relief measures do exist for victims of incidents and accidents caused by U.S. military personnel. In the case that compensation for an incident or accident where the perpetrator was off duty cannot be received, a system is in place in which the U.S. government pays the money in accordance with the SOFA. Furthermore, if the compensation provided by the U.S. government is insufficient, the Japanese government can cover the difference with "SACO consolation money."

A file photo of U.S. Marine Corps Camp Schwab is seen in the Okinawa city of Nago. (Mainichi/Satoshi Kazuno)

However, by the time the woman found out about the system, the two-year statute of limitations under U.S. law had already passed. As a last resort, the woman filed a lawsuit against the soldier's insurance company in the Naha District Court's Okinawa branch in March 2020, demanding payment of 2.91 million yen in insurance money. The woman said, "Why does the victim need to suffer even after the accident? I would also have liked it if the defense bureau had responded to my issue while being considerate of my situation as a victim, such as by advising me of available procedures."

The woman is currently still struggling with the aftereffects of the accident, with pain in her neck and back. In an attempt to reduce the burden on her neck by even a little bit, she cut her hair short. But even so, she continues to feel severe pain in her neck, back, and other parts of her body when at work carrying heavy equipment such as oxygen tanks, or when she feels the effects of gravity as she gets out of the sea.

When she lived on the mainland, the woman never thought about what life was like for people in Japan who had to live alongside fenced off U.S. military bases. But now she lives in the center of Okinawa's main island, a place with a high concentration of U.S. military facilities even within the prefecture, and she finds herself troubled by the daily roar of military aircraft taking off and landing at Kadena Air Base, which stretches across the town of Kadena and into other municipalities. She said, "If Japan is to coexist with the U.S. military, shouldn't the worries and damages arising from the arrangement be eliminated?"

An interview with the Defense Ministry revealed that of the 1,130 incidents and accidents between fiscal 2014 and 2018 caused by off duty U.S. military personnel and affiliated workers, there were only 73 cases in which victims who could not receive compensation from the perpetrators applied for compensation from the U.S. government in accordance with the SOFA. Although the agreement stipulates that the U.S. government will provide compensation on behalf of U.S. military personnel, it seems there are many cases where victims have no choice but to give up, the two-year statute of limitations expiring before they've had a chance to file an application.

According to Japan's Defense Ministry, the number of incidents or accidents compared to applications for compensation from the U.S. government over the past five years were as follows: 234 to 7 in fiscal 2014, 210 to 18 in fiscal 2015, 208 to 22 in fiscal 2016, 209 to 13 in fiscal 2017, and 269 to 13 in fiscal 2018. Commenting on the low application figures, a Japanese Defense Ministry representative said, "As the situations are usually resolved between the parties, such as with solutions facilitated by traffic accident insurance, perhaps there have been many cases where the parties have reached a settlement."

Some have claimed that although the statute of limitations for damage compensation under the Civil Code of Japan is three years, the shorter two-year limit for filing compensation under U.S. law is one factor causing such low application numbers. However, the Defense Ministry representative commented, "Although there are no specific rules regarding explanations to victims about application procedures and statutes of limitation, information on the procedures is also provided on our website."

Yoichiro Hidaka, a lawyer with the Okinawa Bar Association and an expert on compensation for U.S. military-related incidents, said, "It's hard to believe that many cases are solved through a settlement between the involved parties. There are even instances where lawyers are not aware of the system (of compensation)." He added, "It is natural that the Japanese government ultimately compensates for damages caused by U.S. military-related personnel placed in Japan as part of national policy, and the Defense Ministry's actions are insufficient. It should publicize and expand relief measures."

(Japanese original by Masanori Hirakawa, Kyushu News Department)

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