Japan complains to US over Utah senator’s remarks on imprisoned Navy officer
Stars and Stripes March 3, 2023
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include a response from Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah.
TOKYO — A U.S. senator’s claim that the Japanese reneged on a promise to transfer a Navy officer imprisoned in Japan was false and inappropriate, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign affairs said Friday.
Sen. Mike Lee on the Senate floor Wednesday criticized Japan’s handling of the conviction and imprisonment of Lt. Ridge Alkonis, who’s serving three years for a May 2021 car crash that killed two Japanese citizens. During his speech, Lee accused Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi of backtracking on a deal for the sailor’s release to U.S. custody.
Lee said he met in August with Hayashi in Tokyo, where the foreign minister made an “unequivocal commitment” to transfer Alkonis. However, a “junior member of the Japanese embassy” contacted Lee’s staff and denied Hayashi ever made the commitment, the senator said.
Lee’s remarks were “contrary to the facts and cannot be accepted,” and the ministry lodged an official complaint through the U.S. government over the matter, a ministry spokesperson told Stars and Stripes by email Friday.
Some government officials in Japan are required to speak to reporters only on condition of anonymity.
Lee made a courtesy call on Hayashi on Aug. 31, the spokesperson said, but Hayashi stressed that he could make no commitments on a prisoner transfer. The two governments were discussing the issue prior to Lee and Hayashi’s meeting.
“Minister Hayashi made remarks that he cannot make any commitments at that time on whether it’s possible or not to transfer Lt. Alkonis,” the spokesperson said. “This case should be handled appropriately under the law between the law-enforcing authorities.”
The U.S. Embassy in Japan declined to comment on the statement and referred all questions to the Foreign Ministry. U.S. Forces Japan did not immediately return a request for comment.
Lee’s offices did not return multiple calls this week; however, the senator responded to the Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s remarks in a series of tweets from his personal account, @BasedMikeLee.
“Hayashi can quibble over nuanced language and whether he *officially* agreed, or rely on customary disclaimers voiced in the meeting,” Lee tweeted Friday. “But at the end of it, it was unmistakably clear that if I convinced Alkonis to submit the application, Japan would process it without delay.”
The senator continued: “Looking back, I specifically addressed the fact that Japan normally would wait a year before processing a transfer request like this one. He agreed to circumvent that practice to process the request right away once they received the documents from Alkonis and the [U.S. Department of Justice].”
Lee’s speech Wednesday followed an earlier barrage of tweets he leveled at Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida earlier this week, in which he called on Kishida to hand over Alkonis.
When Kishida failed to respond before Lee’s imposed 24-hour deadline, the senator followed through on his threat to begin “a long series of conversations” about Alkonis and the status of forces agreement that outlines the rights and responsibilities of the U.S. military population in Japan.
“Patience in Washington has grown thin,” Lee said in his Senate speech. “The Japanese government has vastly underestimated the intensity of bipartisan support for Lt. Alkonis in Congress and every level of government.”
Alkonis, of Claremont, Calif., is eight months into his sentence for negligent driving that caused the two deaths of two Japanese people and injured a third. Shizuoka District Court sentenced him in October 2021. Alkonis’ family also paid $1.65 million in restitution to the victims’ families, a common practice in Japan.
Lee said Alkonis, who was assigned at the time to a destroyer at Yokosuka Naval Base, was mistreated while under pretrial arrest.
USFJ said that it has continued to “closely monitor” Alkonis’ case and has remained in contact with its Japanese counterparts, as well as Naval Forces Japan and the U.S. Embassy in Japan, spokesman Marine Gunnery Sgt. Jonathan Wright told Stars and Stripes by email Thursday.
Formerly a weapons officer assigned to the destroyer USS Benfold, Alkonis was driving with his family through Fujinomiya after a trip to nearby Mount Fuji when he fell unconscious and crashed into the victims outside a soba restaurant.
The case sparked a movement to secure the officer’s release, spearheaded by his wife, Brittany Alkonis, who has demonstrated across the country, met with Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington, D.C., to plead her case and met President Joe Biden after his State of the Union address in Congress on Feb. 7.