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Japan-US forces pact 'inconsistent with the times' needs drastic reform: Okinawa governor

Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki is seen speaking about issues surrounding the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) during an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun at the Okinawa Prefectural Government building on Sept. 14, 2021. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

NAHA -- Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki called for a fundamental overhaul of the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) -- which has remained unaltered since it went into effect in 1960 -- saying that it has become inconsistent with what is demanded in the present age.

    Some 70% of U.S. military-dedicated facilities in Japan are concentrated in the southernmost island prefecture of Okinawa. Tamaki told the Mainichi Shimbun in an exclusive interview, "Amid growing awareness about human rights and environmental issues, it is a self-evident fact that the SOFA has become inconsistent with the demands of the time and the needs of the public."

    Regarding the nature of the Japan-U.S. Joint Committee, which discusses the agreement's execution and other matters, Tamaki said, "We don't even know what's been discussed. Amid this black box, there's little proof guaranteeing that a relationship of trust between Japan and the United States is being maintained," and demanded discussions to be made transparent.

    In Okinawa, residents have been suffering due to regular drills by U.S. military aircraft and the problems they bring, including low-altitude flights, late night and early morning flights, and noise pollution. There have also been issues of U.S. military aircraft flying above Okinawa on days when school entrance exams, graduation ceremonies and other events were held, showing no consideration for calls to cancel them on such days.

    From the end of 2020 to February 2021, U.S. military aircraft had been repeatedly spotted flying low above the Kerama Islands located west of Okinawa's main island and Cape Hedo at the northern tip of the main island. These areas are not included in the U.S. military's training zones, and Tamaki said, "The U.S. side claims that the drills are to maintain pilots' skills and readiness for acting immediately, but the fact that low-altitude flights are taking place outside the zones set aside for them is an unthinkable situation for other countries." He expressed his anger and said that the flights give local residents "massive anxiety and fear."

    October will mark three years since Gov. Tamaki assumed office, but crimes, accidents and trouble caused by U.S. military personnel in Okinawa Prefecture have seen no end, and these have also given rise to problems related to the SOFA, which specifies the status of the U.S. military in Japan. In June, a U.S. military helicopter crash-landed into a field on Tsuken Island, a remote island off the city of Uruma. A double cordon was set up at the site in accordance with guidelines arranged with prior consensus between the United States and Japan. The guidelines stipulated that in order for Japanese authorities to enter the zone enclosed by the inner regulatory line and go near the aircraft, they would need the consent of the U.S. side.

    Tamaki said, "Even though the helicopter landed on private land, the U.S. military manages everything. Japanese officials should take the lead to regulate and conduct searches at sites that are not facilities or are outside zones designated to the U.S. military. However, this cannot be done under the SOFA, a problematic aspect of the agreement."

    Meanwhile, issues revolving around the SOFA go beyond crimes and accidents, but also directly impact the livelihoods of residents. High concentrations of toxic substances, including purportedly carcinogenic perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), have been detected in spring water near the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the prefectural city of Ginowan, as well as in rivers near the Kadena Air Base in the southwest part of the main island. Although the prefecture has filed a request with the U.S. military to conduct an on-site inspection at the bases, in order to uncover the cause, U.S. authorities have not responded. Under the SOFA, the United States possesses the right to manage military bases, and even if prefectural authorities ask to investigate the military bases' premises, there are great obstacles to realizing this. Raising such examples, Tamaki said, "There have been various situations occurring, but these have not led to debate over the SOFA in the National Diet."

    During his time as a House of Representatives member, Tamaki visited a U.S. Marine base in Hawaii. The base commander apparently said that in cases where the corps conduct special drills, they hold discussions with residents living near the area, and respect their opinions. Reflecting on this, Tamaki said he was "honestly surprised" at this remark, and added, "If that is the case, the Marine Corps in Japan should also respond to the requests of local residents and carry out reform of the bases' operation. Perhaps the Japanese government hasn't made any serious proposals to tackle this issue."

    In a bid to understand the situations of other countries, since 2017, when Tamaki's predecessor Takeshi Onaga was governor of Okinawa, the prefectural government has dispatched officials to countries where U.S. military is stationed, including Germany and Italy, and investigated their status of forces agreements with the U.S. military as well as how bases were operated. According to the investigation, U.S. military in Germany is subject to aviation laws and other domestic regulations, and there were restrictions on flights during the nighttime. In Italy, local military commanders were permanently stationed at U.S. bases, and the U.S. military needed to gain such commanders' consent for their activities. Tamaki pointed out the difference between these countries and Japan, saying, "It was revealed that the domestic laws and regulations were applied to the U.S. military, and that these host countries with U.S. bases were able to control U.S. military activities."

    In response to Okinawa Prefecture's presentations to raise these issues in 2018 and 2020, the National Governors' Association compiled a "recommendation regarding U.S. military base burdens" and submitted it to the Japanese government. The proposal included examining the actual nature of low-altitude flights by U.S. military aircraft and information disclosure prior to such flights, as well as subjecting the military to domestic laws by means of a radical change of the SOFA.

    "The reality that low-altitude flights and other problematic activities are actually being carried out in parts outside U.S. military drill zones has come to light, and this may have prompted governors across the country to feel that this is 'not just someone else's problem,'" said Tamaki. He added, "Written opinions demanding a review of the SOFA have also been adopted in local assemblies outside Okinawa Prefecture, and a movement to amend the SOFA has been spreading quietly but steadily."

    Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki is seen speaking about issues surrounding the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) during an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun at the Okinawa Prefectural Government building on Sept. 14, 2021. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

    On the other hand, the Japanese government is reluctant to reform the SOFA. It has taken the stance of solving issues by making improvements on how the SOFA is executed, as well as exchanging supplementary agreements. Tamaki pointed out, "This so-called improvement on the SOFA's execution only appears to be that the Japanese government is giving the United States favorable treatment and merely swallowing their claims, and this sort of situation has been continuing for a long time."

    Regarding the nature of the Japan-U.S. Joint Committee, he said, "It should openly show what the issues are, as well as what is discussed and how the problems will be solved, while residents and local authorities need to keep a watch on and monitor whether they are being operated properly."

    Tamaki, who pushes for fundamental reform of the SOFA, is also a supporter of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. "We're not showing opposition for the sake of showing opposition, but to fulfill our greatest duty of guaranteeing safety and peace of mind for local residents. Whether it be the Japan-U.S. alliance or regional security, I'd like to convey how we can build safety and security moving forward from various perspectives," he said.

    The Okinawa governor concluded on a hopeful note, saying, "If the Japanese public gets engaged as well, starting from the areas of their interest, this will become a great opportunity prompting them to view the SOFA as an issue affecting them too."

    (Japanese original by Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau)

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