U.S., Japan review SOFA rules on how DOD civilians are tried for crimes
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The United States and Japan are discussing new rules that may allow civilian workers on U.S. military bases to be tried in Japanese court for incidents that occur while on duty, U.S. and Japanese officials confirmed this week.
However, both U.S. Forces Japan and the Ministry of Defense declined to comment on the issue or provide details to Stars and Stripes.
In most cases, servicemembers and civil workers who are charged with crimes while on duty are tried in military or civilian courts by the United States. But the practice has caused some public outcry in Japan and especially Okinawa where residents have pressed for Japanese trials of U.S. personnel involved in on-duty traffic accidents following a fatal collision in January.
The current policy “needs to be reviewed immediately and I gave instructions once again to speed up the talks,” Japan Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said Monday during a session in the Diet.
The two countries regularly convene a joint committee to discuss such policies under the status of forces agreement, a treaty that outlines the rules for having U.S. military in Japan.
The committee may agree the U.S. has primary authority to try civilian employees but Japan will also be permitted to try them when sending a case back to the United States is deemed too difficult, Kyodo news service reported this week.
“We are discussing the issue with the government of Japan,” USFJ spokesman Master Sgt. Arsenio Cortez wrote in an email response to Stars and Stripes. “As discussions are on-going, it would be inappropriate to discuss the contents of the talks.”
Any changes to the rule are likely to be a concession to Okinawa, which hosts the majority of U.S. forces in Japan and has long chafed under the current policy.
Public anger here spiked again in January following a traffic accident involving an Army and Air Force Exchange civilian employee that killed a 19-year-old Japanese man.
The AAFES employee was driving home from work at the time and considered to be on duty according to SOFA guidelines. U.S. authorities handled the case and suspended the employee’s Japan driving privileges for five years. The deceased man’s family criticized the penalty and Japanese authorities for not claiming the case.
Stars and Stripes reporters, Elena Sugiyama and Matt Burke contributed to this story.