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SECURITY > Okinawa

Reliance on the U.S. forces at odds with Japan’s sovereignty

By Yosuke Shiroma and Taichi Higa


One week has passed since the May 12 robbery of a currency exchange shop in the town of Chatan, Okinawa Prefecture. About 6.9 million yen was taken. The U.S. military has detained two suspects, a U.S. Army serviceman and a U.S. civilian base worker. The Okinawa police continue investigating the case on a volunteer basis without requesting the U.S. forces to hand over the custody of the two suspects to Japanese authorities before indictment. When the custody of a suspect is “in the hands” of the U.S. military, it may affect Japan’s prosecution of an incident as a criminal case, which is often referred to as the “wall” of the Status of Forces Agreement. A senior official of the Japanese investigative authorities says that cooperation with the U.S. security forces is smooth and there are no impediments to Japan’s prosecution of the case. The Okinawa Times looked into the real circumstances.


The security forces arrived at the scene soon after the robbery took place, as the Okinawa police had notified them, saying that “two suspects who appear to be foreigners fled from the exchange shop and they could be U.S. military members.” According to sources connected with investigative authorities, the Okinawa police identified the suspects’ vehicle from the records of security cameras near the exchange shop. The Okinawa police provided the vehicle information to the security forces, which soon identified the suspects.


Such cooperation with the security forces has been achieved thanks to long-time efforts to build a trust relationship between Japanese and U.S. military authorities, according to former Japanese police officials. In the 1970s and 1980s, crimes committed by U.S. service members occurred almost daily, including both minor and major crimes. “Once we worked for a chief of the prefectural police headquarters who ordered us to take custody of all U.S. military suspects no matter what,” recalled one of the former Japanese police officials. “We competed with the security forces for custody of U.S. military suspects who were on the run.”


It was not unusual that after assiduously collecting evidence of a crime, the Okinawa police obtained an arrest warrant and caught a suspect as soon as he stepped outside the base. In response, the security forces tried to catch U.S. military suspects before the Okinawa police did. Despite the official agreement for the two investigative authorities to cooperate, their competition intensified.


The relationship between the two authorities, however, started changing in the 1990s. Another former Japanese police official said, “We asked for the fullest cooperation from the security forces and we were able to prosecute cases with alacrity.” For example, even if the Okinawa police obtain a photograph of a suspect or information on a suspect’s vehicle license number, it is difficult to identify a suspect without the cooperation of the U.S. military. If it takes long for the Okinawa police to identify a suspect, they have a chance to leave Japan. 


Knowing that Japanese authorities cannot take into custody a U.S. forces suspect on account of the SOFA, “We requested the U.S. military to hand over the custody any way because we believed we had the right to do so,” said a former senior Japanese police official. In recent years, however, as the U.S. military speedily responds to the Okinawa Police’s request for the questioning of a suspect on a voluntary basis and a house search on the base, the Japanese police have decided not to request custody. That has become the normal practice. Regarding the latest case, a senior Japanese investigator said, “We don’t have the custody of the two suspects, but it will not hinder us from prosecuting the case.”


However, the manner of the suspects’ detention on the base remains unknown. Tsutomu Arakaki, a lawyer who is familiar with the SOFA, said, “Compared with arrest in Japan, monitoring of a suspect on base is less stringent.” There were cases in the past where multiple suspects conspired to destroy evidence and where an accomplice left Japan for the U.S.


But is an investigative protocol that prioritizes a “smooth investigation” over the nation’s “sovereignty” appropriate? “The fundamental problem is that if a suspect were Japanese, they would have been arrested right away,” says Arakaki. “Why can’t  U.S. service member suspects be treated the same way?

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