Misawa officials lay out legal system to Japanese
June 1, 2009
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — If there’s one thing that U.S. troops stationed overseas learn quickly, it’s that off-base misconduct gets a lot of attention.
In mainland Japan and Okinawa, especially, troops have found themselves under extreme scrutiny, with the Japanese reacting very quickly to any allegations of crime.
Front-page headlines sometimes blast the military and its leaders; high-ranking U.S. officers and politicians find themselves bowing in apology; and entire base communities have been locked down so residents can "reflect" on the actions of a few.
While the U.S. military at Misawa Air Base, in northern Japan, enjoys a strong relationship with the local community, officials made an effort Friday to better explain its legal system to the Japanese press.
The goal, said Lt. Col. Mark Patterson, 35th Fighter Wing’s staff judge advocate, was to help fight any possible misperception that the U.S. military doesn’t deal with its bad apples.
"I would like to help the public — through the media — to understand" how the U.S. military’s legal system works, he said during an interview before meeting with Japanese media.
Patterson said the meeting wasn’t driven by any recent case, even though a U.S. airman was court-martialed earlier in the week, in part for conspiring with other troops to go on an off-base vandalism spree earlier this year.
He said it’s difficult to gauge what sort of impact off-base crime has on the relationship between the military and Japanese community, because there are few cases each year.
Satoshi Tomita, of Misawa city’s military base relations section, said Friday that local residents are concerned with any U.S. military-related crime. Local residents’ associations submit letters of protest in reaction to any misconduct, he said. His section then follows up with the base leadership.
"We submit a letter of protest every time," Tomita said.
But Tomita said city officials believe the base takes their complaints seriously and that U.S. officials take the appropriate action.
"In the past, there have not been any cases where it affected our friendly relations with the base," he said.
Kenichi Asano, professor of journalism at Doshisha University in Kyoto, said during an interview Thursday that the Japanese expect U.S. troops "to have higher moral standards than ordinary people."
When news of an alleged crime breaks, he said, the Japanese tend to forget the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" and start demanding prosecution.
On Friday, 16 members of the Japanese press gathered for about 90 minutes, as Patterson explained everything from nonjudicial punishment to a general court-martial, "so when things happen, [the press] can put it in context" in reporting to their readers.
Patterson walked the reporters through the step-by-step process of a case, from the investigation to the preferral of charges, the trial to the appeal.
And he discussed the importance of the base and Japanese legal officials working together.
We "must work side-by-side with the laws of the nation," he said, when explaining how the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement clearly dictates who gets jurisdiction in any case.
With Japan transitioning to its own form of a jury system, one reporter wanted to know how military jurors are selected and what would happen if they didn’t want to be a juror.
Patterson explained that they are ordered to be part of a jury, and that there would have to be a very strong reason for them to be excused.
Another asked what the base would do if it learned of an off-base crime while investigating something it had primary jurisdiction over.
Patterson assured the reporter that the regulations clearly state that the base share its information with the Japanese authorities.
Hideki Yabu, the Misawa bureau chief for Japan’s NHK, said he was glad he attended the lecture and learned a lot about the legal system.
He said he’s followed the news on high-profile cases involving U.S. troops on Okinawa that have involved the Japanese and military courts.
He said he was surprised to learn that the U.S. military uses a jury system.
"It was very helpful," he said.
Stars and Stripes reporters Hana Kusumoto and Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this story.