Japanese union wants military bases to stay
November 29, 2008
GINOWAN, Okinawa — Zenchuro, the largest labor union for Japanese employees on U.S. military bases on Okinawa, has sent out a clear message — it wants military bases to stay.
The labor union earlier this month decided to part from the Okinawa Peace Activity Center, an umbrella organization of anti-base groups and unions demanding the closure of all military bases on the island.
As a result, Zenchuro members will no longer be among protesters chanting anti-military slogans in front of base gates.
The more military-friendly shift reflects an attitude change in the 6,500-member union and its growing number of younger members, who see the bases as stable workplaces.
"We have come a long way," said Hiroshi Zamami, 52, general secretary of Zenchuro’s Okinawa chapter. Nowadays, military bases are places that provide good jobs, he said.
"It is a big change from the time when Okinawans working for the military had to fight for their basic human rights," he said.
Zamami said that Zenchuro’s former body, Zengunro, was formed in 1961 with its main focus the struggle against the discrimination Okinawans faced on their home island.
"There were many different forms of discrimination in those days — such as that Okinawans had to use separate bathrooms from those for Americans on base, not to mention unfairly low wages," he said.
U.S. military provisional government control ended with Okinawa’s reversion to Japan in 1972. Until then, Okinawan base workers weren’t allowed to organize a labor union, even though their counterparts in mainland Japan were granted the right soon after the end of World War II, when the country was occupied and controlled by the General Headquarters of the Allied Forces under the leadership of U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Zamami said.
Also around the time the military relinquished control of the island to Japan, many Okinawan workers were laid off from their base jobs, he said.
However, that’s history, Zamami said. The majority of today’s union members work in much-improved environments and do not know of the "period of suffering," he said. And over the years, younger workers began to question the union’s anti-base stance.
That eventually led to the formation of an alternative, more pro-military labor union, Okichuro, which was formed in 1997. The new union has 600 members, while about 6,500 workers belong to Zenchuro.
Today, base jobs are highly sought after. In 2007, 8,474 Okinawans applied for 370 open base jobs, according to the Labor Management Office for Japanese base employees. As of September, 9,055 Japanese are employed at U.S. military bases on Okinawa.
The change in attitude of base workers was significant, as well as predictable, said Masaie Ishihara, professor of Global and Regional Culture at Okinawa International University in Ginowan.
In postwar Okinawa, military base jobs were the only way Okinawans could survive, said Ishihara, 67, who was born in Taiwan and grew up on Okinawa.
In those days, about 50,000 people were employed by the military, when the island’s population was between 700,000 and 800,000, he said. His father was one of those workers, he added.
"Their jobs were always directly connected to war operations," he said, noting Okinawa was a base of operations during the Korean and Vietnam wars. "While loading munitions or engaging other work, they keenly felt that they [were] involved in the war."
It was the sense of guilt that drove Okinawan base workers to commit themselves to anti-war and peace activities, Ishihara said.
As time passed, the nature of Japanese workers on base changed, he said, especially after the first Gulf War, when their jobs no longer had a direct connection with war, at least on the surface.
"Now, very few things make them feel what they do has any direct connection to war operations," he said. "Therefore, there is no need for them to cry against war. Instead, they began to question their union’s stance that denies what they do for a living."
Added Ishihara: "Okinawa’s economy has to rely on military bases. This has never changed."