Navy Lt. Ridge Alkonis was convicted in October 2021 by a three-judge panel in Shizuoka District Court of negligent driving causing the deaths of two people and injuring a third in May 2021.

Navy Lt. Ridge Alkonis was convicted in October 2021 by a three-judge panel in Shizuoka District Court of negligent driving causing the deaths of two people and injuring a third in May 2021. (Patrick Dionne/U.S. Navy)

A Navy officer’s release by U.S. authorities from his prison term for two 2021 traffic deaths near Mount Fuji has stirred a wave of criticism by Japanese on social media.

Online critique of Lt. Ridge Alkonis’ release, ordered Jan. 12 by the U.S. Parole Commission, and his subsequent media appearances “goes far beyond the scale” sometimes leveled at the U.S. military in Japan, said Jeffrey Hall, a special lecturer at Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba prefecture.

For example, a post by @takigare3 outlining the details of the case on X, formerly Twitter, has received more than 29 million views since Jan. 16.

Alkonis went free from U.S. custody about a month after his December transfer from a Japanese prison where he served less than half of a three-year sentence for negligent driving causing the deaths of two Japanese citizens and injuries to a third in Fujinomiya, Japan.

Alkonis said mountain sickness caused him to fall unconscious behind the wheel following a family trip to Mount Fuji from Yokosuka Naval Base, where he was stationed, on May 29, 2021.

The car veered into a restaurant parking lot, striking vehicles and pedestrians and causing the deaths of an 85-year-old woman and her 54-year-old son-in-law. Alkonis expressed remorse over the deaths during his court appearances in summer and fall 2022.

On Jan. 15, Alkonis and his wife appeared on CNN and Fox News. In both interviews, the officer, whose friends and family paid $1.6 million to the victims’ families in restitution, said his remorse over the incident “has never wavered.”

Hall said those TV appearances, along with an X post by CNN anchor Jake Tapper can largely be blamed for the attention the story is getting on social media in Japan.

“The pressure campaign to release Alkonis and his subsequent release received very little media attention in Japan,” he told Stars and Stripes by email Friday. “If they had not decided to draw attention to themselves with a post-release victory tour in the US news media, this event probably would have been largely unnoticed in Japan.”

Tapper announced Alkonis’ release as “GREAT AND BREAKING NEWS” on Jan. 13 and shared a picture of the Alkonis family together in a car. The X post received more than 20 million views and 4,700 comments, many of which criticized Tapper for omitting the fact that two people had died in the incident. While most responses were written in English, a significant number of commenters sported Japanese usernames. 

That day, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, used X to praise the family’s reunification. The longtime Alkonis advocate also criticized the Japanese government’s handling of the case.

“America owes the Alkonis family a debt of gratitude,” he wrote in a post that’s been viewed more than 6 million times. “Japan owes the family — and the U.S. — an apology.”

In the following days, Japanese X users began posting about Alkonis’ media appearances and early release.

On Jan. 17, @roos2624 wrote: “No matter how I think about it, I can’t accept it. U.S. Sen. Mike Lee posted a video of the Alkonis family on X, but how does the victim, who lost her husband and mother and was injured herself, feel about this? Isn’t it full of sad and regretful feelings? Her family will never be together again. Cruel.”

On Jan. 18, @ikedanob wrote: “Everyone from CNN to FOX is praising Lt. Alkonis’ parole and treating him like a hero after killing two people while driving drowsy. His wife says, ‘The Japan-US Status of Forces Agreement should be revised.’ Will the Japanese government leave this alone? Why is the media silent?”

The attention is unlikely to affect the U.S.-Japan relationship, and will likely fade quickly, Hall said.

“Unless major Japanese mainstream media outlets start giving a lot more attention to this story, it’s probably not going to have a big impact on U.S.-Japan relations,” he wrote. “The Japanese government and the U.S. military will likely ignore the negative online reaction and proceed with business as usual.”

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Alex Wilson covers the U.S. Navy and other services from Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. Originally from Knoxville, Tenn., he holds a journalism degree from the University of North Florida. He previously covered crime and the military in Key West, Fla., and business in Jacksonville, Fla.

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