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YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The Japanese Ministry of Defense will discuss the U.S. military’s use of free toll passes for servicemembers renting vehicles while off duty, but stopped short of saying it would end the practice.

The ministry will talk about creating a system that takes into account the purpose of trips made in rentals and other vehicles with government license plates, a ministry official told Stars and Stripes on Monday.

The decision comes after the Board of Audit of Japan released a strongly worded report calling for enforcement of Article V of the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement, which exempts only U.S. vehicles used for official purposes from paying tolls.

The board began the audit after noticing that a Yokota Air Base agency’s Web site advertised toll passes with all car rentals.

There is apparently a perception gap between the U.S. military and Japan on “official purposes,” said Yuichi Anzai, chief of the 1st Defense Audit Office of the 2nd Bureau at the Board of Audit of Japan.

“It is necessary for the ministry to discuss the issue squarely with the military to fill the gap and clarify what are official purposes and what are not,” Anza said in a phone interview Monday.

The toll passes include no information on the purpose of the trip, Anzai said.

In 2008, the Ministry of Defense spent 862 million yen, or about $9.4 million, on redeemed toll passes for U.S. military vehicles, according to the audit.

U.S. Forces Japan and the Ministry of Defense have discussed the free toll passes frequently in the past, but USFJ hasn’t received any new official ministry requests, USFJ spokesman Master Sgt. Donald Preston said Monday.

“There’s nothing formal in the works right now to make any changes,” Preston said.

Preston reiterated USFJ’s position that Article XV of the status of forces agreement exempts vehicles owned by nonappropriated fund agencies like Morale, Welfare and Recreation from highway tolls.

MWR is an official program regulated by the U.S. Department of Defense, Preston added.

Meanwhile, the audit board cited the case of a rental car driver involved in an accident in which USFJ did not acknowledge that the driver was conducting official duties.

Preston said only that accidents are investigated on a case-by-case basis.

Last year, Japanese Communist Party representative Satoshi Inoue argued during a Japanese Diet Upper House committee meeting against USFJ using the free toll passes. A Defense Ministry spokesman responded at the time that tours and leisure trips were official and helped boost servicemember morale.

The toll of tighter regulationsIf U.S. Forces Japan personnel were unable to use the highway toll passes for leisure trips in rental cars, they would likely end up paying far more for their trips than the average Japanese driver.

Military personnel have a much more difficult and costly time obtaining an Electronic Toll Collection card, which offers huge discounts on some highway trips.

A one-way weekend trip from Yokota Air Base to Misawa Air Base costs about $11 with ETC and about $145 without it.

About 82 percent of all tolls are paid with ETC, according to Japan’s Organization for Road System Enhancement.

While Japanese can use commonly available ETC-branded credit cards, most Defense Department personnel cannot apply for the credit cards because banks require an alien registration card with an application. Personnel with status of forces agreement visas aren’t eligible for the alien cards.

Servicemembers and SOFA personnel can apply for a personal card directly through ETC, but must pay a deposit between 40,000 and 100,000 yen ($440 to $1,100).

They must also file a written application and answer any questions about the application entirely in Japanese. In addition, they must obtain a Japanese bank account for automatic fee payment.

Even then, the card wouldn’t function in a rental car unless MWR outfitted its fleet with ETC card readers.

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