Japan Behind the News >> Revising the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement

Cultural News, February 2010 Issue

By Motoaki Kamiura, Military Analyst

Translated by Alan Gleason

Motoaki Kamiura

Motoaki Kamiura

The Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) is the treaty under which Japan provides bases on its soil for use by the U.S. military. SOFA also stipulates various forms of preferential treatment for the troops and civilian staff stationed on those bases and their families.

Among these perquisites are exemption from taxation, and immunity from interrogation or arrest when crimes are committed by base personnel on duty. If, for example, an on-duty U.S. soldier is driving a car off-base and causes a fatal traffic accident through his own negligence, the Japanese police cannot arrest him.

Except for heinous crimes such as murder, arson, or rape, American troops need not turn themselves over to Japanese law enforcement officers until they are actually indicted. That makes it difficult if not impossible for the Japanese to conduct effective investigations of such cases.

Nowadays the media are full of pronouncements that the controversy over relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in Okinawa has snowballed into a major political dispute between the U.S. and Japan. In fact, however, a far greater challenge looms ahead for the two countries: revision of the Status of Forces Agreement.

Since its enactment in 1960, SOFA has never been revised. The U.S. government has adamantly opposed any changes to it, and the Japanese government has been loath to challenge the U.S. In Japan, the agreement is viewed as a classic example of an unequal treaty and is blamed for the country’s continued subservience to the U.S.

Recently, as the U.S. government prepares to return some of its bases to Japanese jurisdiction, SOFA has come under scrutiny because it does not require the American side to restore the land to its original state. Moreover, Japanese environmental law does not apply to the U.S. bases, and on-site environmental inspections cannot be conducted there.

By contrast, American bases in Korea and Germany are subject to the environmental laws of the host country, and local governments may enter them to conduct inspections. Different rules, however, apply to Japan.

According to its own realignment “road map,” the U.S. military eventually plans to return its bases to Japan. If the soil on those bases turns out to be contaminated with heavy metals and toxic chemicals, it is estimated that the clean-up costs could run to several trillion yen — tens of billions of dollars.

So the question arises: who will pay for the clean-up? In Japan, revising the “environmental clause” in SOFA is now an urgent concern.

If this issue is not resolved in an effective manner, it could become a much more painful thorn in the side of the U.S.-Japan alliance than the current Futenma dispute.

Motoaki Kamiura is a Tokyo-based military analyst. He appears frequently on national television programs.

Alan Gleason is an editor, writer, and Japanese-English translator. He lives in Tokyo.