Gregson cancels school visits over protests
March 1, 2003
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Talks by Okinawa’s top-ranking U.S. general to Japanese students were canceled after protests by a teachers union.
Chinen Mayor Keishun Koja had invited Marine Lt. Gen. Wallace C. Gregson, commander Marine Corps Forces Japan, to speak to elementary and junior high school students on Thursday. But the 4,000-member Okinawa Teachers Union protested that it was “not appropriate for a military officer to speak in a school where education for peace should be promoted.”
Gregson and Marine Corps public affairs officials could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The mayor said he considered Gregson a personal friend. Koja said he thought his southern Okinawa students — who live far from the U.S. bases that cover a fifth of the island — would benefit from an opportunity to interact with a native English speaker.
Gregson accepted the invitation and arranged to speak at Chinen Elementary School in the morning and at the junior high school in the afternoon, the mayor said. The schools planned to present the general with commemorative gifts and flowers.
But Noriko Oshiro of the local branch of the Okinawa Teachers Union, known for its strong anti-base stance, said, “It is unthinkable to invite the top official of the military to local schools while we are trying to eliminate the military presence on the island.
“From our standpoint of promoting peace education, these talks are unacceptable,” she said. “Although the mayor insisted that Gregson was coming as a private person, he is still the top-ranking official of U.S. military on Okinawa.
“Inviting someone of such a position is against our policy of peace education. It could lead to an acceptance of the military presence on Okinawa. At a time when the United States is preparing for a war against Iraq, inviting the top-ranking official of the military on Okinawa could also lead to local support of the war.”
The mayor said the protest surprised him. The two schools received phone calls and faxes from anti-base groups objecting to Gregson’s appearance. Some calls were of a threatening nature, Koja said.
“I do not regret that I have invited Gen. Gregson as a private person and a friend of mine to schools in our village,” he said. “But the principals were being threatened.
“Also, it was expected that children coming to school on that day could be put in a situation where they are forced to talk to reporters. To avoid any unnecessary impact on them, I decided to cancel the arrangement.
“I do not think that I did anything wrong. I want children in our village to learn English. It is an important tool for our children to have as they grow into the rapidly globalizing world.”
Koja criticized the teachers union for blocking the talks.
“There are people who have distorted thinking,” he said. “It is important to provide our children with the opportunities to learn differences between our cultures. That way they can fully develop their abundant individuality.”
In central Okinawa, site of most of the U.S. bases, Americans frequently visit local schools and volunteer as assistant English teachers, Koja said, but Chinen, in the south, lacks that advantage.