If the US is asking more of Japan, will the US tread more lightly in turn?
TOKYO — The governments of Japan and the United States have ignored for too long the complaints of the Japanese people regarding the presence of American troops on their soil. Support for the US-Japanallianceamong the Japanese public is extremely low, in part because of problems with the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that governs the 47,000 American troops and US facilities in Japan.
Many Japanese living near US facilitiesin particular feel their needs are being ignored. To address these grievances, a committee to reform SOFA - consisting of 105 members of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party - has spent the past year compiling constituent concerns and incorporating them into a proposal for a new version of SOFA. The need for these changes, which would address the major concerns of the Japanese public without impairing the military activities of the US armed forces, is clear.
Improvements in the relationship could start in these three areas:
First, SOFA, unchanged for the past 43 years, wholly ignores environmental problems arising from US military activities - including noise pollution, disposal of spent artillery, waste water, and toxic waste. The proposed revision would require the US to assess the environmental impact of its training and exercises every three years, and restore the environment - in cooperation with the Japanese government - if any problems are found.
The revision would also require the US to conduct environmental impact assessments prior to the construction of new facilities. Germany, the only nation hosting more US forces than Japan, has enacted similar laws to protect the environment. The US armed forces in Japan should not be exempt from local environmental regulations.
Second, some Japanese are critical of the management of US facilities and areas, which cost Japan $4 billion a year in subsidies. The proposed revision would require the US to submit a usage plan every 10 years for review by the Japanese government. The new process would increase the Japanese public's understanding of the purposeof US facilities and enhance the perception that they are being properly used.
Third, 50 years after the US occupation ended, the American military still exercises air control over 10 percent of departing flights from Japan's busiest airport, Haneda. This is down from 45 percent 10 years ago, but only because planes are now avoiding US-controlled air space. The US also controls 70 percent of all flights at Hiroshima Nishi Airport and 100 percent of flights at Matsuyama Airport. It also controls all the airports on Okinawa, the Japanese island hosting the greatest portion of American facilities and personnel.
Not only does this arrangement challenge Japan's sovereignty, but it also constitutes practical difficulties, such as forcing commercial flights to detour around US airspace and consume more jet fuel in the process. The SOFA revision would grant the US armed forces control over air space only at airports within its facilities.
Finally, the proposed revisions address some of the special off-duty privileges granted to US troops, civilian employees, and their dependents. These privileges have led some to term SOFA an "unequal treaty." The changes would include instituting Japan's immigration laws regarding quarantine of people, animals, and plants at US installations; requiring instruction in the traffic rules of Japan prior to driving outside US facilities; and repealing a tax exemption for Americans on private vehicles.
Many will doubtless ask why SOFA should be revised now. The real question is: How long must we wait?
In response to US requests, Japan has become a more active partner in the US-Japan security alliance, from cooperating strategically in the North Korean nuclear dispute to sending troops to help rebuild Iraq and providing logistical support for operations in Afghanistan.
In a time of grave new dangers and serious security challenges, the alliance has taken on new weight, and we cannot risk cracks in its foundation turning into fissures. The Japanese people currently accept the alliance as a fact of life. Because so many issues concerning the basing of US forces in Japan are unresolved, however, any negative incident surrounding the alliance could easily sway public opinion against it. The Japanese public must be brought into discussions about the alliance and come to feel they have a stake in it. The proposed revisions to SOFA are a good place to start.
• Taro Kono is a Liberal Democratic Party member of Japan's House of Representatives and cofounder of the LDP parliamentary committee to revise SOFA.