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Officials weigh easing liberty rules in Japan

Aug. 3, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Night life moves on Dobuita street near U.S. Naval Base in Yokosuka, near Tokyo. Under liberty overhaul, Marines may see later curfew and no need for battle buddies.
Night life moves on Dobuita street near U.S. Naval Base in Yokosuka, near Tokyo. Under liberty overhaul, Marines may see later curfew and no need for battle buddies. (Shizuo Kambayashi/Associated Press)
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Marines based in Japan could see the strict rules they face when they go off base eased a bit, as military officials consider relaxing the current liberty policy.

Officials with U.S. Forces Japan are evaluating the liberty policy for all American troops based there, said Air Force Lt. Col. David Honchul, the command’s director of public affairs.

“As with all policies, we routinely evaluate them to ensure they are appropriate and effective,” Honchul said. “During reviews of this policy, we consider a wide range of options and suggestions, but it would be inappropriate to publicly disclose discussions or speculations of changes.”

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told Marines and sailors July 28 that changes were under consideration, in an all-hands call at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan.

“The secretary’s statement did confirm that the policy was under review,” SECNAV spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Sarah Self-Kyler said. “It’s really up to the folks there at USFJ to make any changes.”

Two Marines based in Okinawa, Japan, told Marine Corps Times their units had been separately briefed on the potential details. The noncommissioned officer and staff noncommissioned officer spoke under the condition of anonymity, since they weren’t authorized by their commands to discuss the briefs.

The NCO said commanders divulged the details at a regimental formation for Combat Logistics Regiment 3, and 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion. Potential changes include: a curfew extension from midnight to 1 a.m.; a loosening of the battle buddy requirement; and an increase in the total number of drinks an otherwise restricted Marine can have while on liberty.

The staff NCO said the command element of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit heard the same brief. Both said their units learned about the liberty review on the Thursday before the July 4 holiday, as an incentive reminding troops not to step out of line during Independence Day celebrations.

“[They were] just saying watch out for each other and don’t be ‘that guy’ because things are in the process of changing,” the staff NCO said.

U.S. Forces Japan oversees the liberty policy for all American military commands there, Honchul said. That means no one individual service can make changes to the liberty policy in Japan, he said.

Liberty rules were tightened during the fall of 2012 after several mishaps involving U.S. troops allegedly behaving badly made international headlines. Honchul said the liberty policy is just one of many tools the military has to “address incidents in the local communities with the goal of improving host nation relations, safeguarding the vital partnership with our Japanese hosts, and continuing a strong alliance.”

There is no set timeline for revising the liberty policy, he said.

“I initially was understanding of the policy,” said Yeoman 2nd Class (SW) Michael George, a Yokosuka sailor. “However, the duration that the policy has been in place ... and the extent that it reaches has been far too much to not have been modified or lessened with the passage of time.”

George said that the policy affected more than just service members’ time to party. He had to quit his weekly Wednesday night basketball game with Japanese locals in Tokyo in 2012 because he would have needed a liberty buddy to accompany him.

Showing Japan-based troops they’re trusted to make rational and honorable choices would go a long way. He hopes to see the military at least allow he and his fellow service members to earn later curfews, which they were able to do prior to the restrictions being tightened in 2012.

Currently, service members in a pay grade of E-5 and below are required to observe off-installation curfew between midnight and 5 a.m. They’re also required to be accompanied by a liberty buddy between 9 p.m. and midnight.

Alcohol restrictions apply to all uniformed service members. Troops must cap their alcoholic beverages to two each night, and can only be consumed at an off-base restaurant in conjunction with an evening meal between 6 and 10 p.m.

Staff writer Meghann Myers contributed to this report.

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