Deployment talk has Okinawa union wary
GINOWAN, Okinawa — Amid widespread speculation over the future of the U.S. military on Okinawa, Japanese base workers Wednesday voiced their concerns about job security.
During a board meeting of the Okinawa Garrison Forces Labor Union, or Okichuro, committee members discussed fears that sending 3,000 Marines to Iraq would turn Camps Hansen and Schwab in northern Okinawa into ghost towns.
“Since the newspapers reported about the possibility of troop reductions on Okinawa, we talk a lot about it,” said Taeko Sakiyama, who works for a Camp Foster child development center. “If there are less troops stationed here, that means there will be less children at our facilities.”
U.S. officials have said the deployments will be temporary and union officials have pointed out that the number of Japanese workers bases employ is set by U.S.-Japanese agreement and not easily altered.
Still, Sakiyama said, speculation in local newspapers that the reductions may become permanent make her and other base workers feel insecure.
It’s the fate of all Okinawans who work on the military bases, said the union’s founder, Shinichiro Isa.
Okichuro, a pro-military labor union, was formed in 1997 as an alternative to Zenchuro, the Japan Garrison Forces Labor Union, a larger labor union for Japanese workers on U.S. military bases that frequently has opposed the U.S. military presence on Okinawa.
“We are in the same boat with the military that we work for,” Isa said. “Changes will be inevitable if 3,000 Marines from Okinawa will be deployed to Iraq without any replacement troops coming, as the local media has reported.
“There will be less demand for marketing, some barracks will be empty, less housing maintenance will be required and less people will be eating at mess halls,” he said.
However, he urged his union members to be patient.
“It would premature to overreact,” he said. “There has been no official announcement concerning the troop movement. We don’t know for sure that there would be no replacement.
“One thing for sure is that military bases will continue to be here,” he said. “As long as bases are here, jobs for 8,500 Japanese employees should be secure.”
Marine officials have said contingency plans exist for base workers. If a Marine Corps Community Services operation at a northern camp reduces its hours, the workers likely would be sent elsewhere.
Approximately 3,000 Marines are to deploy from III Marine Expeditionary Force to Iraq for seven months, according to Lt. Gen Robert R. Blackman, commanding general of III Marine Expeditionary Force and Marine Corps Bases Japan.
“This will include 1st Battalion, 5th Marines; 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines; and associated aviation and support assets directly from Okinawa,” he said during a news conference last month.
The battalions were to be assigned to Okinawa from the United States under the Unit Deployment Program. Some of the troops already on Okinawa will fly to Iraq sometime soon, Marine officials said.
A third infantry battalion — 3rd Battalion, 24th Marines — will deploy directly to Iraq instead of coming to Okinawa as part of the UDP, Blackman said.
“We will definitely feel the impact of 3,000 Marines and sailors deploying to Iraq; however, the redeployment ... away from Okinawa is temporary,” he said.
“The present number of Japanese base employees is set by an agreement between the U.S. and Japanese governments,” said Asahiro Makabe, the union chairman and a Camp Courtney mess hall worker. “The set slot should not be altered easily.”
Meanwhile, Japan Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi told a Diet committee Wednesday that U.S. officials have assured her the 3,000 troops — mostly redirected to Iraq from six-month unit deployments to Okinawa — eventually would be replaced.
“I was told that after this dispatch to Iraq, troops to the level supposed to be stationed in Okinawa will be deployed there,” she told a House of Councilors Budget Committee, according to Kyodo News.