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KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — As a military customs inspector, Staff Sgt. Rickie Jones confiscates all of the “Goochi” bags, unreleased movies and $5 copies of Windows XP that come through the air terminal at Kadena.

Until Feb. 1, Jones and other inspectors gave those items to Japanese customs officials for destruction.

Shortly before that day, they received a surprising e-mail from the Okinawa regional customs office stating that single, “personal use” copies of bootleg items are legal to bring into Japan.

As a result, servicemembers and other personnel who fell under the status of forces agreeement who entered Japan through Kadena Air Base between Feb. 1 and Thursday were allowed to import as many bootleg single copies of movies, apparel and other merchandise as they wanted.

On Thursday, after Jones discussed the issue further with 18th Security Forces Squadron Lt. Col. David Abercrombie, the policy changed again. Since the Japanese government will not destroy bootleg items meant for personal use, Kadena customs will destroy the merchandise themselves.

Importing copyright-infringing merchandise “is still illegal under U.S. laws, so that’s the standard we’re going with,” Jones said.

The legal standing for destroying the personal-use copies comes from U.S. Forces Japan Policy Letter 4-3, which makes importing bootleg items illegal for USFJ personnel and their dependents. The letter also states: “In cases where U.S. law differs from Japanese laws, the stricter standard is applied.”

The law applies to SOFA-status personnel who fly into commercial Japanese terminals as well, but it’s unlikely they’ll receive the same scrutiny from Japanese inspectors unless they have multiple copies of the same item.

For example, under Japanese law a tourist can bring back bootleg copies of every CD on the Billboard Top 40 list; however, that person cannot bring back two copies of the same Britney Spears album, or the CDs will be destroyed.

“If a tourist bought a copied CD or DVD … overseas, solely for his personal use, the current copyright laws do not ban him from bringing it into Japan,” said Osamu Fukuyama, an Okinawa customs spokesman.

“However, we do not encourage anyone to buy copied goods.”

Bootleg traffic rises

The increase in passenger traffic between Japan and South Asian nations ravaged by the Dec. 26 tsunami created potential for an increase in copyright-infringing items pouring into Japan.

Just last month, Kadena customs inspectors confiscated 108 DVDs from passengers aboard one flight coming back from a tsunami relief mission.

“[Servicemembers] had some down time there, so we knew what was coming,” said Kadena Staff Sgt. Christopher Sykes. “If anything, I was surprised we didn’t have more.”

Military customs inspectors in Japan check all passengers and crew coming from 12 “high-risk” countries, including China and most of South Asia. Inspectors are required to check 10 to 30 percent of inspected baggage coming from other countries into Japan, though they may check more at their discretion.

Warning signs

Military customs inspectors throughout Japan and South Korea concentrate most on finding illegal drugs, weapons and pornography.

They’ll also ask a lot of questions if they suspect something doesn’t seem right with a passenger’s merchandise.

Jones remembers a junior enlisted servicemember flying into Kadena Air Base from South Korea with $1,800 worth of Louis Vuitton bags.

“He said he bought them back home in Louisiana. On an E-3’s salary?” Jones asked. The bags were turned over to the Japanese government for review. In theory, suspected knock-off bags could be returned if Japanese inspectors declare them genuine.

“I’ve never seen anyone give anything back,” Jones said.

Passengers who doubt customs inspectors destroy their merchandise are sometimes invited to destroy the objects themselves, he said.

“They think you’re going to keep the item, so we let them destroy their bags or snap their CDs in half if it makes them feel better,” Jones said.

Chiyomi Sumida and Jennifer Svan contributed to this report.

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