The case of Navy officer sentenced to three years in prison for manslaughter in Japan has thrown into question the legal agreement that governs when the Japanese government has the power to prosecute American service members.
That status of forces agreement is now under scrutiny from Congress, as the case of incarcerated Navy Lt. Ridge Alkonis has made national headlines.
The current agreement allows Japan and the U.S. to divvy up investigating and prosecuting U.S. troops who are suspected of committing off-base crimes in cases where the service member has violated both the Uniform Code of Military Justice and Japanese law.
But, the governor of Okinawa prefecture, which hosts 50,000 U.S. troops, believes the Japanese justice system deserves to take the lead.
“We have been asking, or requesting, to amend the status of forces agreement to give the primary right to investigate to the Japanese side, when incidents or accidents takes place in Okinawa or in Japan, by amending the status of forces agreement,” Gov. Denny Tamaki, through an interpreter, said during a Defense Writers Group event on Wednesday.
The current agreement allows the military justice system the right of first refusal for investigating and prosecuting U.S. troops who are suspected of committing off-base crimes in cases where the service member has violated both the Uniform Code of Military Justice and Japanese law.
The U.S. government ceded its jurisdiction to Japan in Alkonis’s case. The officer lost control of his car and struck several pedestrians following a trip with his family to Mount Fuji in May 2021.
The accident resulted in the deaths of two Japanese citizens. A Japanese court convicted him of negligent driving and sentenced him to three years in prison in October of that year, upholding that conviction after a July appeal hearing.
But his family ― including his wife Brittany Alkonis, who attended the 2023 State of the Union address in February as a guest of Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark. ― has argued that the officer was suffering from delayed altitude sickness at the time of the accident and that the Japanese judge disregarded a doctor’s diagnosis in court.
There has been some U.S. government effort to either get Alkonis released or have him transferred to serve his sentence stateside, to no avail.
Speaking on the Senate floor March 1., Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, accused Japan of reneging on a deal, made with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi during a trip to Tokyo in August, to transfer him back to U.S. custody.
“This isn’t too much to ask of any country, let alone one we spend billions to defend ... We’re not even asking for Ridge to be released from custody,” Lee said, citing an international diplomatic convention that provides for this kind of prisoner release. “We’re simply asking that he be transferred to U.S. custody to serve out the remainder of his sentence.”
Lee alleged in his speech that Japanese authorities had manipulated Alkonis’s statement after his arrest, as well as denied him medical care, legal counsel and an interpreter.
“I’m not exaggerating,” he said. “The U.N. Human Rights Council and other legal and human rights organizations have long criticized Japan’s justice system for unnecessarily long pre-indictment detention periods, denial of lawyers during interrogations, and questionable interrogation tactics.”
From his perspective, Lee said, it’s time to renegotiate the status of forces agreement to give more jurisdiction to U.S. authorities, not less.
“If the Japanese government can’t respect our servicemembers and we can’t trust them to uphold their commitments, then we are long overdue for a renegotiation of the Status of Forces agreement between our two nations,” he said. “We must do so to protect our servicemembers, especially if they’re stationed in a country with a Justice system as draconian as Japan’s.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.