Arrest of U.S. Sailor in Japan Murder Case Complicates U.S.-Japan Realignment Efforts

Date: 01-09-2006

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By Sheila Smith, East-West Center research fellow and a specialist on Japan and Northeast Asia security issues.

HONOLULU (January 9) -- The arrest of an American sailor by police in Japan on Saturday for the robbery and murder of a 56-year-old Japanese woman will complicate efforts by the Japanese government to realign U.S. forces stationed there. According to Japanese police, the 21-year-old sailor from the USS Kitty Hawk, the aircraft carrier home ported in Yokosuka, Japan, admitted to the killing on January 3.

Officials from the U.S. and Japanese governments will meet this week in Washington, D.C., to begin to draw up an implementation agreement for realigning U.S. forces in Japan. This will be the first attempt to iron out the details of a "transformation and realignment" program agreed to in October 29, 2005 for U.S. forces there. A detailed outline of the realignment schedule is due to be concluded by the end of March 2006.

U.S. military and embassy officials in Tokyo were quick to respond to the allegation that a U.S. serviceman was involved in the death of the Japanese woman. "The U.S. Navy's responsibility to see this matter through to its rightful conclusion does not end here, and we will continue to provide our complete support and cooperation with all Japanese authorities," said Rear Adm. James Kelly, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces in Japan (CNFJ). "We owe our community nothing less."

In a written statement, U.S. Ambassador J. Thomas Schieffer said he wished "to convey to all the people of Japan that the U.S. military and the American people are deeply shocked and saddened by this event. The Embassy of the United States of America is closely following this case and working with CNFJ and Japanese authorities to ensure that justice is done."

Furthermore, the handling of this crime puts into effect recent agreements reached by the U.S. and Japanese governments for the expeditious treatment of criminal cases involving U.S. military personnel. After the rape of a 12-year-old girl in Okinawa in 1995, the two governments agreed to hand over suspects in "heinous" criminal cases to Japanese authorities prior to formal indictment.

In Japan, however, there is no provision for legal representation during interrogations and this difference from U.S. practice led to concerns within the U.S. government over the informal agreement to transfer custody of suspects. After considerable discussion between Washington and Tokyo, the two governments in 2004 announced an arrangement that allows a U.S. military representative to be present during interrogation of suspects by Japanese prosecutors. This case will be the first case to test this new procedural cooperation between the U.S. and Japan.

This case has broader regional impact, however. In the Philippines, four U.S. Marines are being held at the U.S. Embassy in Manila, awaiting trial for charges of rape of a 22-year-old Filipina. The allegations were made public in November 2005 in Olongapo City, where the Marines were visiting for a military exercise with the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The Marines were part of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Force stationed in Okinawa, Japan.

Under the terms of a new Visiting Forces Agreement concluded in 1999, the U.S. military is allowed to visit the Philippines to conduct exercises and training with the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Public debate in the Philippines over this alleged rape focuses on the question of which government should have custody over the accused U.S. military personnel. Critics of the VFA have argued that the Philippine government should take custody of the Marines while they face trial, and this week's handling of the murder in Japan has prompted renewed criticism of the Philippine government for not insisting that the suspects be turned over to Philippine authorities.

Despite the swift U.S. response to Japanese investigators, this latest crime by a U.S. serviceman is likely to intensify political pressure on Japan's Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi. The prime minister has committed himself to realigning U.S. military forces in Japan, and has paid particular attention to addressing the longstanding complaints of local residents in Okinawa prefecture where the bulk of U.S. forces are stationed.

But Koizumi has also asked his own home constituency in Yokosuka, just south of Tokyo, to set aside its concerns over a new nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carrier. This latest crime will make it harder for the prime minister to convince local communities to accept the U.S.-Japan plan to realign U.S. forces in his country.

Sheila Smith may be reached on (808) 944-7427 or at
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