Utah Sen. Mike Lee pushed back Friday against a Japanese government official who said Lee’s speech on the U.S. Senate floor this week addressing the imprisonment of Navy Lt. Ridge Alkonis was incorrect. 

In his floor speech, Lee said Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi made a commitment to him that he would expedite the transfer of Alkonis “once the U.S. paperwork was completed,” but then a “junior member” of the Japanese embassy told Lee’s staff that Hayashi didn’t make that commitment. 

On Friday, an anonymous Japanese foreign ministry spokesperson responded to Lee’s remarks, saying they were “contrary to the facts and cannot be accepted,” and that the ministry has lodged an official complaint with the U.S. government, according to a report from Stars and Stripes

Lee responded on Twitter Friday, where he doubled down on his earlier remarks. 

“Hayashi can quibble over nuanced language and whether he *officially* agreed, or rely on customary disclaimers voiced in the meeting. But at the end of it, it was unmistakably clear that if I convinced Alkonis to submit the application, Japan would process it without delay,” Lee wrote

Earlier last month, Lee demanded that Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida transfer Alkonis to the U.S. to serve the remainder of his three-year prison sentence, giving him a Feb. 28 deadline.

After the deadline passed, Lee took to the floor of the U.S. Senate to question the Status of Forces Agreement between the U.S. and Japan, which governs how military personnel stationed in Japan will be treated under Japanese law. 

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Lee said it was time to renegotiate the agreement, to include requirements that a U.S. government official be present during an interview or interrogation of a U.S. service member, and that a service member may request a lawyer or interpreter during an interview or interrogation.  

“At a minimum, any agreement between the United States and a foreign country should provide adequate legal protections for American servicemembers,” Lee said.

Alkonis is eight months into a three-year prison sentence, after pleading guilty to negligent driving in the deaths of an 85-year-old Japanese woman and her 54-year-old son-in-law on May 29, 2021. Alkonis and his family were driving back from a day trip to Mount Fuji when Japanese officials say he fell asleep at the wheel and drove into pedestrians and parked cars, but Navy investigators say Alkonis suffered from acute mountain sickness and lost consciousness. 

Alkonis’ family say they screamed and kicked at him to try to wake him up when he passed out, but he was unresponsive, according to a Deseret News article by Tad Walch. 

Lee has been particularly vocal in demanding that Alkonis be transferred back to the U.S. 

“We’ve waited long enough. Ridge Alkonis has waited long enough, and his wife, Brittany Alkonis, has waited long enough,” Lee said in his floor speech. 

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Alkonis has received support from a bipartisan group of politicians, including Lee; Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif.; and Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., who invited Alkonis’ wife, Brittany, to the State of the Union, where she was able to talk briefly to President Joe Biden. 

“I promise you, we’re not giving up, OK?” Biden told Brittany Alkonis. 

A Wall Street Journal editorial this week pointed out that the conflict over the treatment of Alkonis comes at a critical time in relations between the U.S. and Japan. 

“Americans are seeing pictures of Lt. Alkonis on television winning awards in his dress whites. … But America needs Japan as an ally, now more than ever as the threat from Beijing grows,” they wrote. “The sooner this tragic episode is resolved, the better for both countries.”

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