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Kadena curfew slows business on Gate Two Street

Gate Two Street businesses saw a sharp decline in business this weekend because of the new Kadena Air Base curfew, owners and employees said.

ERIK SLAVIN / S&S

Shops, bars feel pinch as Air Force wrestles with liberty policy

By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 12, 2005

OKINAWA CITY, Okinawa — It’s 12:35 a.m. on a Sunday when the thundering drumbeats suddenly stop at the Gate 2 Garage, a cozy bar near Kadena Air Base.

The drummer, airman “J-Rod,” must get back to base by 1 a.m., to the chagrin of the unusually small crowd.

“Don’t go! Wait till 6!” shouts an American seated at the bar. “I’ll buy you another beer! I’ll buy you a cab ride, I swear to God!”

J-Rod acknowledges his fans with a two-drumstick salute and then hurries back to the barracks.

After only one weekend, the 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. curfew on servicemembers and SOFA-status civilians living or working on Kadena Air Base has affected those who depend on income from Gate Two Street.

The clothing shops and restaurants also are taking a big hit, said Al Evers, owner of Al’s Place and member of a Gate Two Street committee of area businesses. Evers has been a part of Okinawa nightlife for 22 years, and says he has owned a bar on Gate Two Street since 1991.

Business dropped 50 percent Friday night, Evers said. For much of Saturday night, nearly everyone in the bar was either working or with the band, despite offering free drink coupons and a popular band.

“Some people come here and they don’t even drink,” Evers said. “We even advertise non-alcoholic beverages.”

Base officials are aware of the concern for businesses shown by Okinawa City leaders, said Air Force spokesman Maj. Mike Paoli. “We recognize, of course, the impact on those businesses,” Paoli said. “What is more compelling to us is reducing the number of incidents that have occurred during the past year and gaining back the trust we’ve lost from the community, due to the increasing number of incidents.”

The present curfew is a temporary solution, Paoli said. Air Force officials are expected to unveil a new liberty program within the next two weeks. However, the details and how restrictions will affect junior enlisted airmen have yet to be determined.

Gate 2 Garage and Fujiyama’s owner Harry Haney said he hopes the new system will differ from the Marines’ liberty card program, which has cut his business 30 percent since it started last year.

Haney says some older Marines have told him they cannot get the gold-colored cards that carry unlimited liberty restrictions because of the units where they are assigned.

He said he could endorse a balanced liberty card program that didn’t punish servicemembers indiscriminately; however, the current Air Force curfew is inappropriate.

“The latest curfew is so irrelevant,” he said. “It would have done absolutely nothing to stop” last week’s incident, when an Air Force staff sergeant allegedly molested a 10-year-old girl on a Sunday morning.

Air Force officials say that incident jump-started the curfew, but the measure’s underlying cause is the total number of alcohol-related incidents.

But the Air Force cannot completely eliminate that problem, Haney said. “As long as you have Americans and alcohol, there are going to be some guys that get into fights,” Haney said. “Now that rubs against Okinawan culture. But [servicemembers] are here for a reason.”

The situation may not be perfect, but the military mission to safeguard Pacific stability against threats from North Korea and China is paramount, he said.


Few venture in or out early Sunday morn

It’s usual buzz swept away by the new curfew, the path leading from Kadena Air Base’s Gate Two to the nightlife of Gate Two Street was nearly empty at 1 a.m. Sunday morning.

Two first sergeants appeared at the gate’s footpath shortly before 1 a.m.

No one tried to enter in the minutes after 1 a.m., but an Army servicemember and a local national left the base.

The sergeants checked their identification and let them through without a fuss.

Just before 1 a.m., servicemembers like Senior Airman Rhiannon McKinney were wrapping up their night on the town.

The curfew came at a particularly poor time for McKinney, who rarely goes out late but was entertaining friends from Taiwan on Saturday night, along with her husband.

“I don’t think it’s fair to punish everybody,” McKinney said.

“I understand they’re making an attempt to look good to the Japanese — but we’re not children either.”

The “babysitting” that Marines endure is also a bad idea, McKinney said.

A curfew requiring airmen to return to base around 2:30 a.m. would be acceptable, she said.

—Erik Slavin