(Sapio: April 2015 – pp. 96-99)
There is a very special place in Minami-Azabu in Minato Ward, one of the most exclusive residential areas in Tokyo.
Burly guards stand outside the New Sanno Hotel, a U.S. Forces Japan (USFJ) facility, where a sign says “100% ID check in progress.”
A USFJ source said that, “This is a more important facility for the U.S. than the Embassy in Akasaka. Officially, this is accommodation for USFJ personnel, but the Office of Naval Intelligence and the CIA operate from here. This is the hub of Japan-U.S. intelligence operations.”
Even Japanese politicians, not to say members of the media, are not allowed in this facility. The Japan-U.S. Joint Committee consisting of senior Japanese bureaucrats and USFJ officials holds regular meetings here. This committee is the working level body for discussing issues relating to the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).
This committee takes up issues from those directly related to the foundation of Japan’s security to disputes between U.S. military bases and the local residents.
The former consists of issues such as the relocation and reduction of U.S. bases or the U.S. Marines’ deployment of the new Osprey transport aircraft, while the latter refers to such things as garbage disposal or aircraft noise on the bases.
The U.S. side is represented by the deputy USFJ commander, ministers of the U.S. Embassy, and other officials, while the Japanese side is headed by the director general of the North American Affairs Bureau, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), the director general of the Justice Minister’s Secretariat, and the chief of the Bureau of Local Cooperation, Ministry of Defense (MOD).
The chief representative on the Japanese side and his deputy are officials who are potential candidates to become administrative vice ministers in the future. Since the Joint Committee is a place where such high-ranking bureaucrats engage in secret talks with senior officials of the USFJ or the U.S. Embassy, it is also referred to as the “shadow government.”
However, they don’t always meet as a group. The committee is divided into 35 subcommittees or divisions dealing with base issues, criminal cases, the environment, etc. Participants in meetings are determined by their responsibilities.
One bureaucrat who has participated in the Joint Committee’s meetings revealed that, “At least one responsible official each from the Japanese and U.S. sides and two secretaries or interpreters attend the meetings. Discussions are basically in Japanese, but the Japanese side also comes with an interpreter proficient in English, so that discrepancies in the interpretation of both sides due to subtle linguistic nuances will not occur.”
Based on information from our sources, meetings are held about twice a month and the two sides take turns hosting the meetings. When it’s the U.S.’s turn, meetings are held at New Sanno Hotel. The Japanese side holds meetings mostly at MOFA, while subcommittee meetings are held at the ministry of the subcommittee chair.
However, details of the discussions are never made public. Although certain decisions are posted on the MOFA or MOD websites, the information tends to be really brief.
Professor Hiromori Maedomari of Okinawa International University’s graduate school, formerly a Ryukyu Shimpo editorial writer, said: “The Joint Committee has no obligation to publish decisions made. No publication is allowed unless the two sides agree. Since most issues are basically military-related, the USFJ is reluctant to disclose information. It also does not want to offend the Japanese people by revealing decisions favorable to the USFJ. The Japanese side likes to keep things secret as much as possible to avoid being criticized for failure in negotiations with the U.S. side.”
Therefore, the Joint Committee tends to be a “hotbed of secret agreements.”
The Joint Committee was set up to oversee the implementation of SOFA signed in 1960. SOFA is meant to define the legal status of the USFJ and U.S. military facilities and sites. It is often criticized for being an agreement that grants the USFJ “extraterritorial rights.”
SOFA has never been revised since it took effect 55 years ago, even though there have been drastic changes in Japan during this period and many problems have arisen. The Joint Committee is where such issues are supposed to be resolved.
Even the decisions that the committee made public are modified as appropriate. So, what is being discussed at meetings that are not being made public? In addition to the implementation of SOFA, the Joint Committee’s other major task is to hold working level consultations on the provision and return of military bases.
The above-mentioned USFJ source disclosed the following about these secret meetings:
“For example, road maps for the relocation and return of bases. While the general framework is determined by political decisions from the top in both countries, details are decided at the Joint Committee, such as designs for the relocation of the Futenma base to Henoko, which contractors to use, etc.”
Therefore, it is suspected that Japanese officials are making agreements kept secret from the people in a black box.
Takemasa Moriya, former administrative vice minister of defense who was actually involved with the Joint Committee, said that the committee is just a venue for discussing actual implementation of SOFA.
There are layers of decision-making with regard to the Japan-U.S. alliance, the highest level being the bilateral summit. Moriya said: “The Joint Committee is but one of them. I don’t think major policies are decided in secret and I am not aware of such a thing.”
He also said that “ministries other than the MOD tend to avoid being involved with the USFJ.” Except for the subcommittees under the MOD’s jurisdiction, many subcommittees are actually inactive. Moriya claimed that this is influenced by the attitude in Kasumigaseki of regarding negotiating with the USFJ to be taboo that has persisted under the postwar framework in Japan.
“In reality, the special treatment of the U.S. forces, which was put in place during the period of postwar chaos, still persists. However, there must be no misunderstanding here: The U.S. side has not demanded the same treatment it enjoyed during the occupation of Japan. It is rather that the Japanese side has not done a good job demanding improvements. I believe Japanese bureaucrats have not been able to use the Joint Committee effectively.”
Moriya is able to say something like that as an insider. However, there is no way to verify how well the bureaucrats are doing their jobs from the outside.
While immediate information disclosure may not be possible due to the requirement for secrecy in military affairs, third-party examination ought to take place through disclosure after decades have passed.
Maedomari pointed out that, “Most issues brought to the Joint Committee are problems that cannot be resolved by law and are dealt with through political decisions. They effectively constitute diplomatic negotiations. And bureaucrats, not politicians, are responsible. The most serious problem is that officials who do not have the people’s mandate are discussing this country’s future in a place hidden from the people’s view.” (Abridged)