NAHA, Okinawa Pref. — Growing up near Kadena Air Base and witnessing the rough antics of American soldiers, Yasuhiko Toyozato could be forgiven if he harbored negative feelings toward U.S. forces here.
But like many unemployed Okinawans, he now sees the bases as a kind of oasis.
In October, a school opened here to help the growing number of Japanese seeking civilian jobs at U.S. military facilities.
“I understood the feeling of being jobless for the first time,” said Toyozato, 43, who has been out of work since quitting in October for personal reasons. “You keep worrying about what you will be doing in the future and cannot sleep at night.”
Students at the school are taught English conversation, military jargon, base etiquette and any other skills that improve their chances of landing a job.
Toyozato, a student at the school, is preparing to apply for work in May.
The private school is believed to be the first vocational school in Okinawa specially designed for people seeking jobs at military bases.
“Working at U.S. bases is a great opportunity for people in Okinawa,” said Mitsuru Akamine, representative of Kokusai Kyoiku Gakuin, or the U.S. Military Employment School.
“Whether it is right or wrong, we have military bases here, and there is no reason for not taking advantage of them,” he said, referring to the vast area occupied by the U.S. military — nearly 20 percent of the main island of Okinawa.
Amid the protracted economic slump, Okinawa has the nation’s highest unemployment rate, up to 8.4 percent in 2001. Despite widely perceived antibase sentiment, the U.S. military is the second-largest employer after the prefectural government, hiring around 8,500 Japanese civilian workers.
Thanks to relatively good working conditions and high salaries, the competition for base jobs is fierce. Last year, 27,961 people applied for 746 positions, according to the Japanese government. Opportunities exist for doctors, secretaries, cooks, bartenders, drivers, engineers and carpenters.
Salaries are set at the same level as national government employees. Although salaries are covered by Japanese taxpayer money, the right to manage base workers belongs to the military.
The U.S. military does not discriminate by age and gender for employment and promotion, which is another reason the bases attract Japanese workers, Akamine, 42, said.
“There are people who even study at graduate school in the United States to be employed at bases here,” he said.
Despite the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks putting U.S. bases on high alert soon after it started to accept applications, the U.S. Military Employment School is apparently doing well.
Courses started as scheduled in October with 150 students, according to school officials. Enrollment has since soared to 270.
But some still hold mixed feelings about being employed by the U.S. military.
Born and raised near an entertainment district catering mostly to black American soldiers in downtown Koza, today’s Okinawa City, Toyozato recalled that American soldiers were very wild during the Vietnam War.
He said they often broke into his grandfather’s grocery store to steal, or sometimes to hide from pursuing mobs.
Toyozato also witnessed white soldiers beaten by a group of black soldiers, saying he recognized the racial problems that plagued the U.S. military.
“I was too young to understand the controversy over the U.S. bases,” he said. “I was just scared of Americans.”
His views changed when his older sister married an American service member. While the brother-in-law was stationed here, he spent time with Toyozato’s family on weekends.
“I felt like I saw an American soldier in person for the first time,” he said.
But Toyozato still has “mixed feelings” over the fact that many people depend on military bases for job opportunities in Okinawa, where the scars of war are still fresh for many older people.
Such emotional dilemmas, however, appear to be fading for younger people.
“Perceptions toward U.S. bases among younger generations has changed, and bases are simply places for employment for many of them,” said Kiyoshi Tamaki, chairman at Okinawa District Headquarters of All Japan Garrison Forces Labor Union, or Zenchuro.
Zenchuro’s Okinawa headquarters, which has around 6,500 Japanese base employee members, began calling for the withdrawal of the U.S. military from the prefecture in 1971, shortly before Okinawa’s reversion to Japan.
The move illustrated the plight of Okinawans torn between a wish for an island without a military and the lure of base jobs.
In 1997, the Okinawa union decided to drop the slogan of “withdrawal of bases” from its campaign policy. Frustration then increased among younger union members, who favored the withdrawal issue over job security, said Tamaki, who has led the union for several decades.
Despite the complaints, Tamaki, who worked at Kadena Air Base during the 1960s and has seen how Japanese workers were treated under U.S. rule, boasts that the current “good labor conditions at bases” are the fruits of a long struggle.
As a result of U.S. occupation of the island prefecture, some residents were driven out of their houses and farms, which were replaced by bases. Many Okinawans then had no choice but to work at the military facilities.
During the occupation period to 1972, Okinawan base employees were at the bottom of the social hierarchy — American service personnel at the top, followed by American civilians, and employees from other countries such as the Philippines, Tamaki said.
They were often fired without rational reasons if they confronted their American bosses, prompting the union to campaign for Okinawa’s reversion to Japanese governance so the rights of base workers would be protected under Japan’s Constitution, Tamaki said.
A series of massive dismissals of Japanese workers around 1972 also fueled the union’s campaign.
The number of base employees decreased from around 20,000 to 8,500 during the five years after reversion — although the total area of U.S. facilities in the prefecture was barely reduced during that period, according to statistics provided by the prefectural government.
Because he sees reduction and realignment of U.S. military facilities in Okinawa as a matter of course, Tamaki said it’s important that the union gain public understanding in demanding government job-security measures.
“Whether we are for or against U.S. bases, base workers will be fired at the convenience of the U.S. military,” he warned.
Though the union no longer officially demands the withdrawal of U.S. bases, it still plans to actively participate in various campaigns to fight against crime and accidents involving the U.S. military and its personnel.
“Our rights were won hand in hand with the citizens of Okinawa as we walked the same path of history,” Tamaki said. “Though our situation may seem contradictory, I believe encouraging (base employees) to fight alongside people in Okinawa will eventually force the government to hammer out more effective employment measures.”