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Editorial: U.S. forces in Japan cannot be allowed to thumb noses at the law

  • May 18, 2019
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 12:35 p.m.
  • English Press

The public road area near the U.S. Fleet Activities Sasebo base in Nagasaki Prefecture where Japanese security guards walked while carrying loaded firearms (Shinya Haraguchi)

Revelations that the U.S. Sasebo naval base allowed Japanese security guards to carry firearms outside the facility raises serious questions about the U.S. forces’ commitment to respecting Japanese laws and government requests.


It emerged that guards at the U.S. Fleet Activities Sasebo base in Nagasaki Prefecture repeatedly walked on a public road outside the base carrying loaded firearms under instructions from U.S. officers who are their superiors.


The Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement allows U.S. servicemen to carry firearms off base when they are on duty, but Japanese workers at U.S. military bases are allowed to carry weapons only within military facilities.


The case represents a violation of not only the agreement, known as SOFA, but also possibly Japan’s firearm and sword control law.


Defense Ministry officials said the guards in question carried the firearms between May 2 and 10 when crossing a municipal road about 10 meters in width on several occasions to reach another part of the base.


These 10 meters make all the difference between respecting and defying the law.


U.S. forces in Japan naturally have an obligation to observe Japanese laws and regulations. Things could possibly have taken an ugly turn if any of these “armed” guards had become embroiled in some sort of altercation.


U.S. forces apparently have recognized the importance of observing the rule that the guards are required to turn the weapons over to U.S. military members when they cross the road.


What we find troubling is the fact that the Defense Ministry’s repeated requests to the U.S. military command in Japan to put a stop to the practice were ignored. The guards kept being instructed to carry the arms when crossing the road until the Foreign Ministry finally stepped in and sent an e-mail to the U.S. Embassy explaining the situation.


In explaining what happened, the U.S. military command said the instruction to end the practice was not effectively communicated to frontline personnel and that the procedures have now been corrected.


But what does it actually mean that the command’s instruction failed to be effectively communicated to the servicemen?


We strongly urge the U.S. military command in Japan to investigate and disclose the facts and take effective steps to prevent a recurrence.


This is not the first such case. In 2008, it came to light that Japanese guards at two U.S. Marine bases in Okinawa Prefecture had moved between the bases in vehicles carrying loaded guns on the instructions of U.S. military police.


At that time, the U.S. forces said the practice had been based on a misguided instruction and had been withdrawn. The Japanese government asked the U.S. military to take measures to prevent a recurrence.


The implications of the fact that a similar case has occurred again should be taken seriously.


It is not uncommon for U.S. forces in Japan to give no heed to a Japanese government request and make an empty promise.


In 2017, when a U.S. military transport helicopter made an emergency landing after catching fire in a U.S. military training area in the Takae district of the village of Higashi in Okinawa Prefecture, then Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera asked the U.S. military to suspend flights of that model of helicopter until the cause of the accident was identified and the safety of the aircraft were confirmed. But the helicopter quickly resumed operations.


The U.S. forces have also failed to honor bilateral agreements on restricting nighttime flight training, exposing local residents to deafening noise pollution.


The U.S. forces stationed in Japan should make sincere responses to Japanese government requests. Obviously, the blame for this problem primarily rests with the U.S. military. But the Japanese government should also be held responsible for failing to improve the situation.


The revelations about the practice at the Sasebo naval base have made it clear afresh that Tokyo needs to deal more vigorously with each incident that arises as part of serious efforts to seek effective actions from the U.S. military to fix the long-standing problem.

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