CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Servicemembers can now be charged by Japanese authorities when caught driving home drunk from official after-hours functions, according to a new U.S.-Japan interpretation of the bilateral status of forces agreement this month.
Previously, any commuting from work or military functions was considered official duty – even if a servicemember was found driving while intoxicated – and the cases fell under the jurisdiction of U.S. authorities.
The United States and Japan reached an agreement Friday to update the SOFA interpretation for the first time since 1956 and allow Japanese authorities to prosecute drunken driving even when servicemembers are coming from official events, according to the Ministry of Defense. The change went into effect on the same day.
“We have negotiated this matter for a long time because the 1956 agreement is unsuitable for public attitudes toward drunken driving today,” said the spokesman at the ministry’s Status of U.S. Forces Agreement Division.
The new SOFA guideline says servicemembers are considered to be on duty while traveling to or from work but “drinking intoxicating beverages shall remove such person from his official duty status.”
Previously language had allowed an exception for “an official function at which his attendance is required” but was deleted from the treaty, according to the ministry.
Servicemembers in those cases are now subject to Japanese drinking laws, which are generally stricter than U.S. laws. In Japan, a single drink is often enough to trigger criminal charges.
It is the second revision of SOFA guidelines on driving safety and official duty definitions by the U.S. and Japan in the past two months.
In November, the two countries agreed that Japan can now request legal jurisdiction over DOD civilians who are involved in incidents that cause death or permanent injury while driving to or from work.
That change was spurred by an accident involving an Army and Air Force Exchange Service employee who was driving home from his job on Okinawa when he was involved in a collision that killed a Japanese driver.
The ministry spokesman said no specific incident is tied to the most recent SOFA change.