Top 10 stories in Japan for 2008
Bases on mainland Japan were not immune to the economic crisis that swept through the United States in 2008. From gas prices at base pumps that stuck at $4.06 for several months even though the prices in the States dipped steadily, to the dollar hitting a 13-year low against the yen in December, the military community felt the pinch in their wallets.
There was good news for the back pocket, too — overseas employees who were not paid post allowance could begin making claims for back pay, and a legal snafu that denied the 2008 tax stimulus payments to many U.S. servicemembers was fixed.
The year will also be remembered for the historic arrival of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington to its new home at Yokosuka Naval Base. As the base community bid farewell to the conventionally-powered USS Kitty Hawk, citizen groups remained active in opposing the nuclear-powered warship’s arrival.
1. AAFES gas pricesAfter months of consumer complaints, on Nov. 28 the Army and Air Force Exchange Service finally drops its price for midgrade unleaded gas on bases in Japan and Okinawa for the first time since it hit $4.06 per gallon in July. The price for a gallon of midgrade unleaded plummets to $2.43, a $1.63 decrease. The 40 percent reduction still leaves prices far higher than the $2.03 average cost at the time for midgrade unleaded in the United States.
2. The USS Kitty Hawk leaves…The USS Kitty Hawk sails for the last time from Yokosuka Naval Base on May 28, ending the conventionally-powered aircraft carrier’s five decades with the U.S. Navy. The carrier, set for decommissioning in 2009, had been forward-deployed at Yokosuka since 1998.
3. The USS George Washington arrives
The USS George Washington arrives in Yokosuka on Sept. 25, amid cheers from sailors’ families and protests from local groups concerned about the aircraft carrier’s nuclear-powered engines. The ship’s arrival was about a month late; a shipboard fire in May caused $70 million in damage and ultimately caused the removal of the ship’s top two officers.
4. Liberty restrictionsNew liberty restrictions and a curfew are enacted Feb. 20 for Okinawa bases, Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni and Camp Fuji following several alcohol-related incidents involving Americans. All SOFA personnel and their families are restricted to the bases or their off-base homes unless they have letters of exemption from their command.
U.S. Forces Japan commander Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright orders a "Day of Reflection" for all troops in Japan and forms a special Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Task Force. On March 3 the restrictions on Okinawa are eased, but a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew remains in effect and off-base consumption of alcohol is banned. On April 4 the alcohol ban is lifted, but Cinderella Liberty lasts until September.
5. Post-allowance back payThe Defense Department announces a plan in August to compensate overseas employees who were not paid post allowance, and says they can begin making claims for back pay. The retroactive pay dates to Dec. 1, 2001, because back pay cannot exceed a six-year statute of limitations on claims against the government. Worldwide, roughly 2,850 NAF employees, and an unknown number of former workers, are expected to be eligible for at least some compensation. DOD estimates the back pay could cost employers $68 million.
6. Seaman accused in stabbingU.S. Navy Seaman Olatunbosun Ugbogu allegedly stabs to death a Japanese taxi driver in Yokosuka on March 19. During his first appearance in Yokohama District Court on April 11, Ugbogu says he’s mentally ill and claims that "overpowering" voices ordered him to kill 61-year-old Masaaki Takahashi. The 22-year-old is charged with robbery-murder about two weeks later and goes on trial Dec. 10, with a second court date scheduled for January.
7. Patriot Express keeps travelers guessingATA Airlines shuts down operations and files for bankruptcy on April 3, which leads to a temporary halt of the Patriot Express. The following week, Northwest Airlines steps up as a new carrier with an Airbus 330 to continue the mission linking Seattle-Tacoma International Airport with Yokota and Kadena air bases. The U.S. military’s only chartered commercial air service in the Pacific goes to a biweekly route in July before resuming weekly flights in October.
8. HEART ActPresident Bush signs the HEART Act on June 17, fixing a legal snafu that denied the 2008 tax stimulus payments to U.S. servicemembers if any of their family members did not have a taxpayer identification number.
9. Nuclear materials leakA laboratory and the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard determine on July 31 that the nuclear submarine USS Houston likely leaked radioactive water in Sasebo, Guam and Hawaii during recent visits. The Japanese government is notified Aug. 1. The Navy concludes Aug. 7 that the submarine had been "steadily leaking a small amount of water" from June 2006 until Houston was placed in dry dock in July 2008, the State Department says. The U.S. says the submarine leak was minimal and posed no threat to humans or the environment.
10. New command in JapanFor the first time in five years, U.S. Army Japan gets a new commander. Maj. Gen. Elbert N. Perkins, the second-longest-serving USARJ commander behind Gen. Douglas MacArthur, hands over the leadership post to Brig. Gen. Frank Wiercinski during a change-of-command ceremony June 30 at Camp Zama. In February, Air Force Lt. Gen. Edward Rice Jr. succeeded Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright as commander of U.S. Forces Japan.