Crime up, SOFA arrests down in Japan
December 8, 2003
CHATAN, Okinawa — When Japan’s Justice Ministry issued its white paper on the country’s crime statistics for 2002 recently, much of the blame for the increase was placed on “foreigners.”
But these foreigners were not Americans in Japan under the Status of Forces Agreement, records show.
Crime in Japan rose by 3.1 percent last year, according to the Justice Ministry’s report. A record 3.69 million crimes were reported.
The report blamed a large part of the increase on a rise in crimes by foreign visitors to Japan, with 24,258 crimes by persons in the country on visas, up from 18,199 in 2001.
The number of crimes in which foreign residents of Japan and SOFA personnel were identified was much lower — 4,725 in 2001 and 5,386 last year.
And most of those crimes, 87 percent, were for thefts and traffic offenses, according to the report.
Crime statistics are frequently used by anti-base activists as a reason to call for reducing the numbers of U.S. troops stationed in Japan, particularly in Okinawa, where about half of the 47,000 troops are stationed.
According to U.S. Forces Japan and Okinawa prefectural records, there are about 107,500 SOFA personnel in Japan. About 49,530 of them live on Okinawa.
The National Police Agency reported that 158 crimes were attributed to SOFA personnel in 2002, a drop of 65 from the previous year. Of that number, 81 took place on Okinawa, or 51.3 percent.
That was an increase of 70 crimes attributed to SOFA personnel on Okinawa in 2001. It represented a jump from 1.3 percent of all crimes resulting in arrests to 1.7 percent.
However, any increase in such crimes is cause for anti-base activists to issue statements that GIs are the “root of all evil.”
“An increase in the number of crimes committed by SOFA members may not be significant, but the impact each offense has on the Okinawan community is very strong,” said Kanji Tanaka, assistant professor of criminal psychology at the University of the Ryukyus.
“Compared to other parts of Japan, the impact is intense because of Okinawa’s historical background. Okinawan people have gone through a time when the prefecture was under the occupation of the U.S. military, and the victimization they felt from those days still lingers among the people of Okinawa today.”
Tanaka said those feelings make Okinawans sensitive to any incidents or accidents caused by servicemembers.
“From a psychological perspective, people react differently to any crime committed by those whom they view as the privileged classes — such as politicians,” he said.
“When they commit a crime, they tend to be a target of public bashing.
“The same thing can be said concerning U.S. servicemembers. People in the military community on Okinawa are seen as a privileged class, thus they become a target of criticism whenever an incident occurs.”
Statistics released by the Okinawa Prefectural Police show that even though the number of cases involving SOFA individuals rose, few of the incidents involved major crimes.
In 2002, for example, only two of the 135 cases in which arrests were made in the major crime categories — murder, robbery arson and rape — involved SOFA personnel.
The military on Okinawa has put in place several programs to reduce crimes committed outside the base gates.
The Marines, which represent the bulk of the troops stationed on the island, have the most restrictive rules of behavior.
Marines below the rank of E-3 must have a “liberty buddy” whenever they are off base, and the drinking age is 21, even though 20 is the legal age in Japan.
And those are just a few of the restrictions, said Cpl. Ronald J. Loucks, a Marine assigned to the Provost Marshal’s Office on Camp Foster.
Loucks frequently briefs new Marines and their families.
“It’s a pretty exhaustive list of what’s acceptable and what’s not on Okinawa,” he said.
“One of the things we stress is that minor things that you might not think twice about can easily be seen as an international incident if committed out in town. Everything, from what you say to the clothes you wear, could cause a problem.”
Loud talk and horseplay, which is common among young people hanging out at a shopping mall in the United States, is seen differently on Okinawa, Loucks said.
Marine Staff Sgt. Kirk Hood, physical security chief for the base PMO, said the rules of behavior have changed a lot since his first tour on the island in 1992.
“There were a lot more off-base problems back then,” he said, especially in the off-base bar districts.
“The drinking age was 19 then, so we had a lot more of our younger Marines getting into trouble.”
Much of the trouble a servicemember gets into involves alcohol, Hood said.
Controls, such as limiting the amount a young Marine can buy and gate-sobriety checks, have helped keep alcohol-related incidents to a minimum.
Strict enforcement on the company level also helps, he added.
Each week, the base paper publishes a synopsis of actions taken against Marines at nonjudicial punishment hearings.
In most cases, the individuals charged lose a stripe, are fined and given extra duty.
“We are taking this very seriously,” Hood said.