YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The U.S. military briefed the Japanese government about its use of highway toll tickets during Thursday’s meeting of the U.S.-Japan Joint Committee, officials confirmed.

Neither side would divulge what was said, citing panel disclosure rules that prohibit the release of information unless both parties agree to it.

But in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes, U.S. Forces Japan clarified usage guidelines under the status of forces agreement and justified the manner in which Yokota rental vehicles, tour buses and shuttles are employed as part of the base’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation program.

Requested information from other bases in Japan and Okinawa about their individual tour and vehicle rental programs and how much they depend on the toll passes was not provided by deadline.

Defense Department personnel and dependents receive free toll-pass access to the nation’s roadways when using U.S. government vehicles on officially authorized trips.

In fiscal year 2007, Japan paid about 880 million yen in highway tolls for U.S. military vehicles after spending 905 million yen the previous year.

Some of that also covered base-sponsored recreational outings, a big part of military life in Japan, heavily promoted by all commands to get troops and families more familiar with the culture.

But two months ago, Japan Communist Party representative Satoshi Inoue criticized the practice of using the passes for off-base tours and their availability to people who rent vehicles at some installations for leisure trips, claiming it’s a SOFA violation. The Japanese government followed by formally requesting more details from USFJ on toll ticket use.

Japan’s defense and foreign affairs ministries declined comment Friday.

Marine Corps Maj. Neil F. Murphy Jr., a USFJ spokesman, said Article XV in the agreement states that DOD nonappropriated-fund organizations such as MWR "authorized and regulated" by the U.S. military may be established for use by SOFA personnel. Unless otherwise noted, they are not subject to Japanese regulations, license fees, taxes or similar control.

At Yokota, MWR supports quality of life and provides the base community with access to programs similar to those offered in a comparable civilian area, he said.

"Vehicles owned by MWR are obtained, maintained, and operated by the U.S. military for official purposes," Murphy said in the e-mail. "All toll tickets have serial numbers and a strict accountability process is in place. Foregone taxes and tolls are included in U.S. government computations on Japan’s contribution to Host Nation Support to U.S. forces."

An Army and Air Force Exchange Service concessionaire on base rents sedans but does not include highway toll tickets.

The Navy Exchange at Hardy Barracks in Tokyo does provide toll passes with its rental vehicles. Marine Corps Community Services and other NEX outlets in Japan did not provide information on their rental programs.

Vans and light trucks may be rented from the 374th Force Support Squadron, Yokota’s MWR agency. Some people lease vehicles simply because they do come with the passes that ease the cost of getting around Japan. Customers also have the option of hiring a driver.

Murphy said about 60 percent of all MWR vehicles rented here are used to transport servicemembers and their families on official orders to and from Narita International Airport.

It’s "an activity clearly exempt from tolls under Article V of the SOFA," he said, adding the remainder of rentals support official MWR programs.

"The rental vans and trucks provided by MWR provide a more affordable alternative to off-base services consistent with the purpose of the MWR mission."

Renters must provide their destination to the dispatch office and the number of toll tickets issued is based on the most direct route, Murphy added. Unused passes are returned and may not be used with a personally owned vehicle.

Yokota tour buses and shuttles are owned by Air Force Services under the MWR banner. Drivers are provided and the vehicles operate on established schedules and routes.

Bus tour destinations include Mount Fuji, Nikko, Matsumoto, Nagano, Disney, Odaiba and other cultural attractions outside the gates for "the purposes of providing opportunities for SOFA personnel to enjoy aspects of Japan not available on base," Murphy said.

"The trips are often provided at a reduced cost to allow our most junior members of the command to attend," he added, "since obtaining similar services from commercial Japanese companies would be cost-prohibitive. These trips are military-sponsored programs that improve readiness and contribute to morale and unit cohesion."

Meanwhile, shuttle buses at Yokota take SOFA passengers on round trips to the New Sanno Hotel and Narita.

Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this story.

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