Photo/IllutrationA fleet of Osprey aircraft deployed at the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in heavily populated Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

A six decade-old agreement that stipulates the jurisdiction and legal status of U.S. military forces in Japan is again under the spotlight due to U.S. refusal to allow Japanese authorities to inspect a U.S. military base in Okinawa Prefecture.

Japanese officials have been pushing for months to inspect aircraft deployed at the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma following a spate of accidents in January that triggered local alarm.

Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told a Diet session on Jan. 29 that agreement had been secured to allow a team of Self-Defense Forces members to be dispatched to the base in the southernmost prefecture to inspect repaired aircraft and maintenance work there following three incidents of emergency landings involving UH-1 Iroquois utility and AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters deployed to the Futenma facility in Ginowan.

According to the Defense Ministry, Japanese and U.S. officials agreed that the team could begin the work in Futenma on Feb. 1.

But the U.S. side arbitrarily notified Japanese officials that day that the inspection could not go ahead.

With more incidents of emergency landings occurring, including ones by Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft from Futenma that have sparked local safety concerns, the ministry was eager to dispatch SDF experts for an on-site inspection.

But the U.S. side refuses to accede to the Japanese request, according to a ministry official.

Asked about the issue at a news conference on Oct. 12, Takeshi Iwaya, who succeeded Onodera as defense minister in a Cabinet reshuffle earlier this month, said the government is still negotiating with the U.S. side.

“We cannot give details about the content of the negotiations right now, but we will as soon as we can,” he said.

The Asahi Shimbun contacted the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Japan about the planned inspection on four occasions from May to October.

It replied each time, "The content, timing and location of the subject matter expert exchange remain under discussion" between U.S. Forces Japan and the Defense Ministry.

Japanese transport ministry officials are authorized to make unannounced inspections of operators of commercial aircraft under the provisions of the Aviation Law.

But access to U.S. military bases without advance notice is not permitted under the current Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement that was signed in 1960 and has never been revised.

Japan is required to submit a specific request and await permission to be granted.

Article 3 of the SOFA states: “Within the facilities and areas, the United States may take all the measures necessary for their establishment, operation, safeguarding and control.”

Local authorities in Okinawa, where the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan are located, have long argued that this clause and other provisions of the pact should be amended to make it “fair” to Japan.

According to a prefectural government study of SOFA, Germany’s agreement with the United States has a provision guaranteeing Berlin’s right to inspect U.S. bases on its soil.

German officials are also entitled to inspect U.S. bases unannounced when an emergency arises.

In Italy, U.S. bases come under the command of Italian forces. Italian commanders are authorized to have access to all U.S. military installations without constraint.

Germany and Italy revised their SOFAs in the 1990s after a flurry of accidents involving U.S. military aircraft in their countries.

But in Japan, the pact remains exactly as it is when it was signed in 1960 to coincide with revisions of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty that put Japan under the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

The key reason for this is a lack of nationwide debate over the need to revise the SOFA, according to the Okinawa prefectural government’s study report released in March.

“Even if criminal cases and accidents occur in Okinawa Prefecture, they are usually treated as problems concerning only Okinawa and do not spark national debate over possibly demanding a review of the pact,” it said.

The report underscored the gravity of starting public discussions on the issue as a matter that concerns Japanese sovereignty.

Toru Aketagawa, a professor of the history of Japanese politics at Hosei University and author of a book on SOFA, said nationwide debate is indispensable to change the situation in Okinawa.

“Germany pushed to revise its SOFA with the United States because the German public demanded it,” he said. “The Japanese government’s approach toward SOFA negotiations is to blame, but so is the general public as it has not paid attention to the SOFA issue.”

He noted that what many Okinawans and experts view as flawed aspects of the accord tend to be elusive in the eye of the general public since most U.S. military-related incidents and accidents occur in Okinawa Prefecture, home to 70 percent of U.S. military facilities in Japan.

“The revision of the SOFA should be a question all of us Japanese should tackle, regardless of each individual’s position on the Japan-U.S. security alliance,” he said.