By Naotaka Fujita, senior staff writer
The Asahi Shimbun has learned that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) failed to locate a document that they had referred to as the basis of the argument that U.S. forces stationed in Japan are exempt from Japanese laws according to “international law.” The failure indicates that the government has interpreted the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in a way that disadvantages Japan without the document that gives grounds for that interpretation.
Ever since 1972 when Okinawa was returned to Japan, senior MOFA officials have explained the SOFA to the Diet by saying that “in general, according to international law, a foreign military is exempt from domestic laws unless specific agreements exist. Opposition parties have long criticized the government position, saying it is akin to the “Japan-U.S. relationship during the U.S. occupation.”
In 2018, the Asahi Shimbun made a freedom-of-information request to the government concerning a document that has been the basis for the government interpretation of the SOFA. In response, the newspaper received the question-and-answer exchange between an opposition Diet member and the government in 2002. The Asahi reporter argued that it did not satisfactorily disclose the series of Diet interpellations starting 30 years before and requested the involvement of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications’ Information Disclosure and Personal Information Protection Review Board. The Asahi obtained a report from the bureau on April 14.
According to the report, MOFA explained that it disclosed only the 2002 document because that was the first document approved by the cabinet in which the treatment of the U.S. military was understood as being in accordance with “international law.” MOFA also stated: “In response to (the reporter’s) request for the review, office cabinets, shelves, and computer files were searched again. However, the (2002) document was the only one we were able to find.”
The review board responded by stating, “The answer is not beyond question,” but decided that “there was not enough evidence to reject the explanation.” The reporter’s argument was rejected.
In January 2019, MOFA revised its official explanation in face of repeated criticism for its failure to present the international law that gives the basis for the ministry interpretation. The ministry removed the words “international law” from the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement Q & A on its home page. It now just states: “In light of the nature of military service, a foreign military is in general exempt from domestic laws and judicial procedures in regard to official duties, unless specific regulations have been agreed to.” MOFA also adjusted the Diet interpellation accordingly. Meanwhile, in April 2019, then-foreign minister Taro Kono said in a Diet session: “There has been no change in the government’s position.” .