TOKYO: Some US civilians working on military bases in Japan are likely to lose their protected legal status under planned changes announced on Tuesday, as anger rages over the rape and murder of a local woman.
The promised moves come after civilian worker Kenneth Franklin Shinzato was charged last month over the death of 20-year old Rina Shimabukuro on the southern island of Okinawa.
The killing has led to a spike in anti-base sentiment, already running high among Okinawans over a series of crimes including drunk-driving arrests.
About 26,000 US troops are stationed in Okinawa, including at the sprawling Kadena Air Base, and criminal behaviour as well as noise and disruption have long been a thorn in Japanese-US ties.
The two allies are now to spend several months establishing which civilian base workers will continue to receive special legal protection, said Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.
The current rules are governed by a 1960 pact that outlined the legal status of Japan-based US military personnel and other Americans working for them.
Although in the Shinzato case, the existing rules did not hinder Japanese police — partially since he lived off base — critics say unless the agreement is altered it could get in the way of future investigations.
They say the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, is vague in defining who officially qualifies to be considered as part of the civilian component of US forces in Japan.
And they fear that the current arrangement could be an issue when US soldiers and civilian workers commit crimes outside of bases but return to them and get apprehended by military authorities.
In such cases, the US side could keep custody of the suspects until Japanese investigators officially indict them.
Kishida spoke after meeting Japanese Defense chief Gen Nakatani, US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy and Air Force Lieutenant General John Dolan, the commander of US Forces Japan.
“We are aiming to draft a legally binding document,” Kishida told reporters after the meeting.