Japan, US agree to narrow definition of workers on US bases

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TOKYO — Japan and the U.S. announced Tuesday that they will narrow the number of civilians working on American military bases who get immunity from Japanese prosecution, a step toward addressing outrage on Okinawa over a recent murder case on the island involving a Marine-turned-contractor.

The two sides said that civilians covered by the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, will be limited to those who meet more specific criteria than under the current definition. Education and monitoring of American troops and the base workers will be enhanced to try to cut back on crimes.

The arrest in May of a Kadena Air Base contractor, accused of murdering and raping a 20-year-old local woman, sparked renewed anger on Okinawa, where resentment has been simmering over a heavy U.S. troop presence and crime linked to the bases.

A number of drunken driving arrests of American servicemen and contractors in the weeks since, even when disciplinary measures were in place, have aggravated the sense of frustration among Okinawans. On Monday, Okinawan police arrested a technical sergeant at Kadena Air Base for alleged drunken driving.

The announcement Tuesday was made in Tokyo during talks among Foreign and Defense Ministers Fumio Kishida and Gen Nakatani, and U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy and Lt. Gen. John Dolan, commander of the U.S. military in Japan.

Under the changes, base contractors, now stated vaguely as “civilian component,” will be classified in more specific terms, to exclude from preferential treatment those without skills or and those who are residents in Japan, like the murder suspect Kenneth Shinzato, who is a resident of Okinawa and married to a Japanese.

The largely symbolic change, however, does not involve a formal revision to the agreement.

The current SOFA, signed in 1960, gives U.S. military personnel and civilians employed at American bases in Japan immunity from Japanese criminal procedures in accidents or crime while on duty or on base.

That allows the U.S. military to hold suspects on base until formal indictment by Japan. Okinawan authorities say the rule denies them proper access to investigate a crime under Japanese law.

Following protests, the U.S. military today usually hands its servicemen to the Japanese side in serious crimes, though that is not compulsory.

There are about 50,000 American troops stationed in Japan under a bilateral security agreement and about half are based on Okinawa.

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