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Commentary: Fix structural problems now or face SOFA revision later


The U.S. military in Japan in recent weeks is coming under intense scrutiny and correct criticism of its handling of COVID-19 infections among its personnel and dependents and lack of full compliance with related Japanese government requests.


Last month, the new foreign minister, Yoshimasa Hayashi, told Lt. Gen Ricky Rupp, the commander of U.S. forces in Japan, to improve the situation on Dec. 22 and had to make a stronger request to his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, during talks on Jan. 6. Blinken reportedly responded to the effect that the “health and safety of residents in communities near U.S. military bases are important to the United States” and that he would explain Japan’s request to the Defense Department.


But actually doing is more important than simply saying, and the U.S. military has a long history of talking the talk but not walking the walk. As such, there have been renewed calls for a revision of the 1960 Status of Forces Agreement to make sure the U.S. military follows the guidance set out by the Japanese government.


Never having lived in Japan nor served in the military, Blinken is likely unaware of this history of underperformance and failure to comply. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, too, is probably unaware of this history and the existing structural problems in the bilateral relationship that make compliance difficult.


Some of the problems that need addressing include the following:


First, there is a stubborn lack of transparency, accountability and trust between the bases and the Japanese government, as well as with the local municipalities and prefectures hosting them. The U.S. military withholds more information than it provides, citing privacy issues and operational concerns. Sometimes this is justifiable, but often it is not.


Related to this is the lack of transparency, accountability and trust between the central government and the local communities. The latter tend to view the central government as more interested in protecting the U.S. military from criticism than in protecting its own citizens. This generates a great deal of friction.


To be fair, in some cases, this friction has nothing to do directly with the U.S. military. It might have to do with the fact that a local mayor or governor is from a different or rival political party than the ruling party at the time, or that factional dynamics and vested interests get in the way of policy matters. There may also be a long history of problems concerning a particular installation that makes it a difficult subject to deal with.


The bottom line, however, is that without transparency, accountability and trust, the U.S.-Japan alliance will not enjoy the full support of the public.


Second, communication is lacking and the sharing of information slow. Without trust, it is hard to communicate. (And similarly, without communication, it is hard to build trust.) Further, for the aforementioned reasons, the U.S. military is often unnecessarily hesitant to share information.


One of the recent requests by the Okinawa Prefectural Government was for the bases to conduct genome analysis to determine if any of the infected individuals had the omicron variant. U.S. officials, according to newspaper reports, refused to do so saying they did not have the necessary equipment to conduct such tests in Okinawa. Officials from the prefecture offered to conduct the analysis, but U.S. officials reportedly declined on the grounds that personal information had to be protected. Whether the two sides discussed simple work-arounds such as separating names and other identifying information from samples, etc., is unclear.


If infected personnel were truly limited to those on base, that might be one thing. However, many of them work and eat alongside Japanese workers. Moreover, some of those infected live off base. In fact, civilians — both Japanese and Americans — working for the bases live off base in the local communities. Unfortunately, the U.S. side does not provide the names and addresses to the local governments, citing, again, that personal information has to be safeguarded for “force protection” reasons, such as concerns over terrorism and political violence.


However, not sharing the information also hurts those civilians, as they are not able to fully participate in the activities of the community or learn about important things going on there, such as disaster drills or community events. This in turn weakens the bonds with the local community and goes against the stated aims of fostering better “community relations” that the bases nominally tout.


From the local government’s perspective, it is unnerving and unacceptable not knowing who is living in their town, as there is no requirement for SOFA members to register in the town as it is for non-SOFA ordinary foreign residents in Japan. So, while the U.S. side asserts its right to not share information out of privacy and other concerns, the local authorities are certainly not wrong to assert their right to know about who lives in their jurisdiction.


Another type of shared information concerns the handling of the pandemic. Early on in a Japanese language op-ed, I called for the bases in Japan, especially in Okinawa, and the local communities to work together on all aspects of the pandemic, including establishing temporary quarantine facilities on the expansive bases if necessary. It is unclear if the two sides ever worked together, but it is important that they do — the fences may stop a physical entry, but they do little to help prevent the spread of the virus. As literal neighbors, they have to coordinate their efforts for the common good.


Ironically, often, within the U.S. military in Japan, there are different policies between the four primary services (U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marines). And to make it even more confusing, policies and procedures differ between bases in mainland Japan and those in Okinawa.


Third is the twin problem of language and culture. Unfortunately, there are few officials on the U.S. side with the language skills and cultural understanding to work effectively with their Japanese counterparts.


Fourth, dealing with the pandemic — a new experience for all of us — is a structural problem in itself. But to do it with one’s alliance partner but without the requisite language skills, expertise, communication and trust is all the more challenging.


And finally, to overcome this, I have long called for the placement of liaison officers (LNOs) in one another’s offices. Namely, the regional defense bureau could assign an LNO to the nearby base or higher headquarters in order to share and gather information as appropriate, and if the U.S. side so desired, to place an officer or civilian official in the office of the defense bureau or other office or agency. If successful and/or deemed desirable, it could be expanded to include the hosting prefecture or municipality.


If the U.S. and Japanese governments do not proactively address the rising concerns over the U.S. military’s repeated mishandling of COVID-19, calls for SOFA revision are inevitable. I, myself, am not against it, as there are many improvements that could be made.


If SOFA is to be revised, it should follow these three guidelines I have long argued for: No. 1, any revision must enhance the relationship, not weaken it, i.e., it should not become so politically charged as to permanently damage the relationship; No. 2, revisions must reflect the highest standards of human/civil rights and environmental laws and should not just be a battle over sovereignty, i.e., whichever side has the highest standards, that policy should be adopted; and No. 3, in order to secure the transparency desired by base-hosting municipalities and prefectures, they should be allowed to observe the proceedings at the biweekly U.S.-Japan Joint Committee meeting if the base in their community is being discussed.


These conditions are still very much valid today, two decades after I first proposed them, amid COVID-19.


Robert D. Eldridge was a tenured associate professor of U.S.-Japan Relations at Osaka University from 2001 to 2009 and the former political and public diplomacy adviser to the U.S. Marine Corps in Japan. He is the author of “Okinawa and the U.S. Marine Corps” (Reed, 2019) and other works.

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