KITANAKAGUSUKU, Okinawa — A group of Okinawans, led by the governor, is protesting the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement, saying the current law gives Americans living here too much protection and deprives Okinawans of the right to pursue justice in some cases.
The latest protest over the bilateral agreement revolves around the January traffic death of a Japanese teenager. The U.S. driver involved in the case — a civilian AAFES employee whose name has not been released by either Japanese or military authorities — was driving home from work when his vehicle collided head on with a car driven by Koki Yogi, 19.
Because the U.S. driver had just clocked out from his job at Camp Foster, he was considered still to be on official duty, and therefore free from prosecution by Japanese authorities, according to the SOFA. Under Article 17 of the SOFA, the military authorities have the primary right to exercise jurisdiction over members of the U.S. armed forces — or the civilian component — regarding offenses arising from any act or omission done in the performance of official duty.
About 270 Okinawans gathered Saturday at a community hall in Kitanakagusuku, Yogi’s hometown, to protest handling of the case, arguing that the SOFA goes too far in protecting U.S. servicemembers and government employees.
The U.S. military has long shielded servicemembers from being prosecuted by foreign governments for incidents that occur during their official duties. But for Okinawans and Yogi’s family, the practice has left gaping questions over the traffic death and a feeling of lost justice.
“Without facing the crime he committed, the offender leads [an] everyday life, as if nothing had happened,” Yogi’s mother, Manami Kamiya, told supporters who attended the rally. “Something is wrong.”
According to the Naha District Public Prosecutor’s Office, the military suspended the employee’s driving privileges in Japan for five years. But that did not satisfy Kamiya, who brought the case to the attention of the Committee for Inquest of Prosecution, which, in May, judged that the driver merits prosecution.
The Naha prosecutor’s office is currently reviewing the case, a spokesman for the Naha District Prosecutor’s Office said last week. Makoto Iori, deputy chief of the Okinawa Liaison Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the ministry is waiting for a decision from the prosecutor’s office, but there is no immediate plan to bring up the case in bilateral talks with the U.S. government.
Maj. Neal Fisher, a spokesman for U.S. Forces Japan, said traffic incidents involving servicemembers or government personnel are individually reviewed by U.S. and Japanese authorities to decide which nation will take jurisdiction. Those who are driving directly home from work or a military function — as long as no stops are made during the commute — are considered to be performing official duties, and will fall under U.S. jurisdiction, Fisher said.
“When this happened, it was adjudicated as a line of duty incident,” he said. “If they are coming directly from work to home they are considered line of duty.”
Japanese authorities decided not to press charges in the Yogi case due to the SOFA guidelines, Fisher said.
However, he said a servicemember on Okinawa who was involved in a traffic incident about one month ago was not considered on duty because she had made stops during the commute.
Fisher said the bilateral pact is always open for review at the U.S. Japan Joint Committee, which meets biweekly.
“The SOFA is a living document,” he said.
At the rally site, Shoji Arakaki, Yogi’s best friend, said Yogi’s death made him realize the consequences of hosting vast U.S. military bases on the island.
“Never did I dream that there were such rules like the SOFA that make light of our human rights,” he told the crowd. He said the accident symbolized the burden long imposed on the people of Okinawa, where nearly 75 percent of facilities used by U.S. Forces Japan are located, spread across 19 percent of the land surface of Okinawa’s main island.
“Our grandparents and parents have suffered from the burden of heavy military presence and unfair treatments,” he said. “How long more do we need to suffer?”
Stars and Stripes reporter Travis Tritten contributed to the report