The new minister in charge of issues related to Okinawa said Tuesday the Japan-U.S. status of forces agreement should be “re-examined” in light of the fatal crash off Australia involving an Okinawa-based Osprey aircraft, likely overstepping Tokyo’s official line on the politically sensitive pact.
Tetsuma Esaki defended his comment later in the day, saying it does not contradict the stance of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration which had negotiated modifications to the accord.
His remark could be taken as calling for a revision to the agreement, which is not among the Abe government’s policy goals.
The 1960 pact defines the rights of U.S. forces and their personnel in Japan. While the government of Okinawa has called for a revision of the agreement on the grounds that its provisions are unfair to Japan by being overly protective of the personnel, the Japanese government has been extremely reluctant to propose renegotiating the pact, which has never been amended.
The 73-year-old Esaki has just drawn fire from opposition parties for having said Saturday, just two days after he was appointed, that he would “read aloud” texts prepared by government officials so as not to make mistakes.
It was not immediately clear what impact Tuesday’s remark would have inside the government. But as the Cabinet minister with the portfolio, Esaki is tasked with promoting the economy of the island prefecture. It is therefore unusual for someone in his capacity to address a possible revision of SOFA.
On Tuesday evening, Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga handed Esaki a written request seeking a drastic amendment to the pact and withdrawal of U.S. Ospreys deployed in the prefecture.
Accepting the document during their first meeting in the prefectural government office in Naha, Esaki only said, “We will do our best to tackle” the issues.
Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. forces in Japan, has long been irritated by crimes committed by U.S. service members, with members of its community sometimes falling victim. Residents around U.S. military bases also complain about noise pollution and risks of accidents.
Esaki, a six-term member of the House of Representatives from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said at a press conference Tuesday morning, “It is necessary to review SOFA a little,” but stopped short of elaborating how the pact should be changed, noting that he is a “layman” on the issue.
But he expressed hope for negotiations aimed at amending “what should be amended,” adding, “The (central) government should properly accept local residents’ feelings and tell the United States what we should tell even if it takes time.”
Although the SOFA has yet to be revised for more than half a century since its establishment in 1960, Tokyo and Washington have forged supplementary agreements under Abe’s administration, including the one in January to narrow the scope of legal immunity granted to U.S. military base workers.
Since an MV-22 Osprey crashed off the eastern coast of Australia over the weekend, killing three Marines on board, the Japanese government has urged the U.S. government to ensure the safe operation of the controversial tilt-rotor aircraft. The crashed aircraft was among Ospreys deployed at a U.S. Marine base in Okinawa.
The transport aircraft has been involved in a spate of deadly accidents since its development stage. The crash landing of an Osprey in shallow waters off Okinawa’s main island late last year had revived safety concerns about the aircraft among locals.
Esaki, whose portfolio also covers issues related to disputed islands off Hokkaido, was given a ministerial post for the first time in a Cabinet reshuffle last week aimed at shoring up public support for Abe’s Cabinet, which has seen low approval ratings recently.