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HOME  > Past issues  > 2019 May 8 - 14  > In EU member nations, domestic laws are applied to US forces stationed there: Okinawa study report
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2019 May 8 - 14 TOP3 [US FORCES]

In EU member nations, domestic laws are applied to US forces stationed there: Okinawa study report

May 8, 2019
Under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, military and civilian personnel of the U.S. forces in Japan are not subject to Japanese laws. However, a survey report which the Okinawa Prefectural government published in April shows that it is the internationally accepted norm that the laws of a host nation are applied to any foreign military stationing on its territory.

The survey was conducted in 2017 and 2018 to determine how NATO member nations apply their laws to the U.S. forces under the NATO SOFA. The survey included an on-site study tour to Germany, Italy, Belgium, and Britain.

The Okinawa report concluded that the four NATO nations surveyed exercise sovereignty over the U.S. forces by placing them under the jurisdiction of domestic legislation and thus are able to have some control over U.S. military activities.

According to the report, for example, in Belgium where NATO is headquartered, Article 185 of the Belgian constitution stipulates, “Foreign troops may only be admitted to the service of the State, or occupy or cross the territory by virtue of a law” and the nation’s domestic laws provide the legal basis for the stationing of a foreign military.

Furthermore, under Belgian aviation rules, foreign military aircraft are required to obtain overflight approval of the Minister of Defence and in some cases, their flight will be prohibited by Royal Decree. On top of this, the aviation law revision in 1990 placed a total ban on U.S. military aircraft low-altitude flights, while allowing Belgian military airplanes to fly at an exceptionally low 80 meters altitude.

Unlike NATO nations, Japan takes the view that as a “general principle”, Japanese domestic laws are not imposed on the U.S. military.

However, even the weak-kneed Japanese government in the past adopted an attitude of obliging the U.S. military to abide by Japan’s domestic rules and regulations. This was shown in a Foreign Ministry official’s remark in 1960 at a meeting of the House of Representatives Special Committee on the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. The official in the meeting said that Japanese laws and ordinances should be applied to U.S. military facilities and their sites in principle.

It was 1973 when the Japanese government changed this stance reportedly triggered by a historic protest against the U.S. military in Japan that took place in 1972 during the Vietnam War.

In the early hours of August 5, 1972, U.S. military vehicles carrying M48 tanks were stopped by anti-Vietnam War protesters on a bridge in Yokohama in Kanagawa Prefecture on the way to Yokohama Port from the U.S. Army Sagami General Depot. The tanks were scheduled to be transported to Vietnam after undergoing repairs at the Sagami depot.

The U.S. military, based on Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. SOFA which allows U.S. troops to move freely in Japan, requested the Yokohama City government for permission to travel through the city. However, the city authorities did not grant permission as the tanks were grossly overweight and oversized and violated national road use regulations.

In reaction to this event, the U.S. side began pushing the Japanese government to implement measures so that the U.S. military will be able to move between their bases without restriction. This was revealed in declassified U.S. documents which journalist Suenami Yasushi obtained from the U.S. National Archives.

Among the documents was a letter dated October 3, 1972 which was sent from U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Alexis Johnson to Secretary of State William Rogers. In the letter, Johnson reported that the U.S. Ambassador to Japan expressed deep concern over the Japanese government authorizing local governments like the Yokohama City government to impose restrictions on U.S. military activities involving the transport of military vehicles, including tanks. He also wrote that the ambassador said he will consider taking serious steps in case Japan fails to respond to the situation properly.

Caving in to U.S. pressure, on October 17, 1972, the Cabinet of Japan decided to exclude the U.S. military from the application of domestic road regulations.

In February 2019, an Okinawa Prefectural government senior official at a prefectural assembly meeting in response to questioning by Japanese Communist Party assemblyperson Toguchi Osamu stressed that with a revision of the SOFA, the U.S. military should abide by Japan’s domestic legislation which would allow Japan to be more autonomous. The official also said that that the prefectural government will work hard to increase public support for its demand for a drastic revision of the SOFA.

Former Okinawa Governor Onaga Takeshi used to point out, “The Japan-U.S. SOFA comes before the Japanese Constitution and the Japan-U.S. Joint Committee imposes its demands on the Diet.” The application of domestic laws to the U.S. military in Japan should be the minimal goal.

Past related articles:
> US military personnel in Japan enjoy ‘SOFA-protected’ driving privileges [December 1, 2018]
> JCP Akamine criticizes gov’t for refusing to revise Japan-US SOFA [November 14, 2018]
> Japan bears cost to clean up contamination at returned US bases under SOFA [November 16, 2018]
> Koike: Humiliating SOFA should be revised [November 8, 2018]
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