Murder case raises tensions over continued US presence in Okinawa

By Jon Day Source:Xinhua Published: 2016/6/23 23:23:01

In 1972 the tiny island of Okinawa officially reverted back from the US to Japanese control as per a postwar treaty, with the move supposed to guarantee the freedom and safety of the local citizens.

But while the US occupation of Okinawa officially ended 44 years ago, for many on the sub-tropical island which continues to host the bulk of US military forces in Japan, the ever-increasing instances of noise, pollution and, most worryingly, rising cases of serious crimes committed by US service people, have ensured that Okinawan's own civil liberties have been impeded by the US presence.

Political watchers in Japan have suggested Okinawa and its people have reached their tipping point, as evidenced by the 65,000 people who rallied Sunday to protest the alleged rape and murder of a 20-year old local woman by a US base-linked worker. And the Okinawans will, through ongoing rallies and through the herculean efforts of Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga and with the backing of the entire prefectural assembly, once and for all achieve the change they deserve. "The latest heinous crime committed by a US service person has really grabbed the international spotlight, and highlighted the extent to which Okinawans routinely suffer from hosting so many US bases and all the military personnel and this is a publicity nightmare for Washington once again," noted Asian affairs commentator Kaoru Imori.

The central government has consistently viewed Okinawa, which was not ruled by Tokyo until the 19th century, and its people as something akin to a different race that is not truly "Japanese" and it is for this reason that it has turned its back on the island.

"If these crimes had been committed by US service people in Tokyo, for example, the central government would almost certainly have moved rapidly to alter the US-Japan Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to better ensure the safety of its citizens and no doubt would have found a way to, in tandem with a revision of the agreement, reduce the numbers of US military personnel here and hence the potential risk to local citizens," said David McLellan, a professor emeritus of postgraduate Asian Studies.

"The fact that the pact has yet to be revised and no demonstrable efforts have been made by the US to address the situation reflects the central government's apathetic stance on the issue, as for all intents and purposes, it's not affecting 'regular' Japanese citizens but rather 'islanders' who should be used to it by now," McLellan said, adding that an equitable redistribution of US military personnel throughout bases on the mainland would be an "unthinkable" proposition for the central government.

He also pointed out the fact that during US President Barack Obama's recent Japan visit to attend a Group of Seven (G7) leaders' summit, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe following the murder of the young girl by the base worker, while expressing his condemnation of the attack to the US president, did not push for a revision to SOFA.

McLellan went on to reiterate the limitations of SOFA and suggested that wholesale revisions need to be made starting with Article 17, which guarantees the US military legal jurisdiction over its personnel if they break the law in Japan while engaged in official duties. He said that Japanese police forces and other authorities should be granted absolute power in criminal cases.

"There's a mentality among some military service people in Okinawa that they can do what they like, firstly, and that they can act with impunity off base, as long as they can make it back to base without being arrested as the bases offer them something similar to diplomatic immunity, as local authorities' access to bases to investigate crimes committed is greatly restricted," McLellan explained.

The author is a writer with the Xinhua News Agency.

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