Japanese Master Labor Contract gate guard Yoshinao Yamashiro checks the identification of a driver at the Legion Gate on Camp Foster, Okinawa, on Thursday.

Japanese Master Labor Contract gate guard Yoshinao Yamashiro checks the identification of a driver at the Legion Gate on Camp Foster, Okinawa, on Thursday. (Fred Zimmerman / S&S)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — While the use of civilian contractors to guard military bases is becoming an issue in the United States and more recently in Europe, Japanese guards screening traffic through the entrances to bases on Okinawa has been a routine sight for decades.

Each service conducts gate security a bit differently, but there is one standard: English-speaking Japanese security guards, hired directly and trained by the U.S. military, are an integral part of protecting the gates.

But that doesn’t mean U.S. Forces Japan officials are letting their guard down when it comes to force protection.

“It’s a continuing process that is always subject to review and refinement,” Marine Maj. James Bell, a USFJ spokesman, said in a written statement. “The base commanders know they can’t ever be complacent about it, so they take it very seriously, and are always seeking ways to improve it in order to stay in front of those who might seek to harm us.”

Marine Gen. James L. Jones, commander of the U.S. European Command, last week ordered his security experts to report back to him with recommendations for improvement within 60 days, according to a EUCOM press release. Most U.S. bases in Europe contract with private security firms to guard gates.

The release did not indicate if Jones’ order was in response to an Aug. 9 incident involving three anti-war protesters who cut a hole in the fence and entered Patch Barracks, EUCOM’s headquarters, located in Stuttgart, Germany. The protesters walked around the base unchallenged, hung a banner and later walked out the gate and turned themselves in, according to a Sept. 28 report in the Europe edition of Stars and Stripes.

In the United States, according to the Associated Press, the Service Employees International Union recently contended that job screening was often inadequate and security checks at gates frequently shoddy because of lack of manpower. The union said security work at seven U.S. Army bases were awarded under no-bid contracts to an Alaska firm that subcontracted the work to Wackenhut, the second largest security business in the United States. The union’s report cited complaints by guards who claimed a lack of adequate training and staffing.

Although experts at U.S. bases in Europe have been ordered to review their safety practices, no such special review has been recommended for bases in Japan, Okinawa or South Korea.

“We have no such security reviews currently being conducted at Kadena Air Base,” said 18th Wing Public Affairs spokeswoman Patricia Miyagi.

“However, the Air Force frequently sends vulnerability assessment teams to Kadena as well as other Air Force bases throughout the Pacific,” she said. “These teams ensure that the security we provide for the base populace and its resources remains efficient and able to combat today’s changing terrorist threat.”

Second Lt. Clinton Gebke, a Marine spokesman, said policies, procedures and equipment are constantly reviewed, updated and refined to protect people and property on Okinawa bases.

“The results of the Threat Reduction Agency’s recently conducted vulnerability assessment reflected very favorably on the Marine Corps and the island as a whole,” he said.

The civilian guard program in Japan was made formal as part of the Master Labor Contract in 1957. “It’s been a system in long-term use that’s been proven effective over the entire time frame,” said Col. James Brophy II, 5th Air Force Security Forces director and USFJ provost marshal.

It’s an arrangement that appears to satisfy people living inside the gates.

“I think we all feel pretty safe and secure here,” said L. W. Franklin, 49, a civilian base employee on Camp Foster. “I’ve been here since 1980, and the only beef I have is that it seems the taxis sometimes get waved right through.”

“Do I feel safe? A hundred percent so,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Rebeleo Obedoza, a Navy corpsman who has been on Okinawa for nine years. “I think the Japanese gate guards do a great job.”

“They do as good a job as anyone else,” agreed Marine Sgt. Juan Morales, who has been on the island for 20 months.

On Kadena Air Base, gate security is provided by the 18th Security Forces Squadron, with augmentees from other 18th Wing units and Japanese civilian guards, said Sayaka Higa, an 18th Wing Public Affairs spokeswoman.

“This combination of forces gives the installation the ability to provide a balanced response for protecting our forces and our people,” she said. “All Japanese guards share similar arming requirements as their military counterparts.”

Unlike their counterparts at Air Force facilities on the island, who always are accompanied by Air Force security personnel, the civilian guards at Marine sites at times monitor the gates with no Marines present.

“Although we cannot comment on specific response procedures, Marine Corps security forces train extensively to conduct coordinated and immediate response to a range of possible situations,” Capt. Danny Chung stated in a written response to questions.

Higa said the guards hired by the Air Force “receive training very similar to their active-duty colleagues, to include searching and handcuffing procedures, standard first-aid training, baton and pepper spray training, use-of-force instruction and much more.”

“Japanese guards, as well as active-duty security forces airmen, all have tests and evaluations they must complete before they can stand guard at the installation gates,” she said.”

Besides the base guards, Japanese police patrol outside base perimeters during protests. Also, the Okinawa prefectural police have established a special assault team to respond to terrorism on the island.

Gate guard duties have not changed much in the 30 years since Osamu Nakazato last donned a uniform, he said.

Nakazato, 61, vice chairman of the Okinawa Chapter of Zenchuro, or All Japan Garrison Forces Labor Union, recalls when he served as a gate guard at camps Foster and Lester from 1966 to 1976.

“Since 1950s, when many military bases were built or expanded, Japanese security guards provided security duties on and around the military facilities,” he said.

Before Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972, the Japanese security guards pulled patrols with their military counterparts on and off the bases.

“We also patrolled the off-base housing areas where military personnel lived,” Nakazato said.

“There were two different duties,” he said. “One was to stand as a gate guard and (the) other was to patrol important facilities such as munitions and petroleum storage areas.”

The training he received as a gate guard is similar to that of today’s Japanese gate guards. “Besides the basic training, we learned self-defense and how to use weapons, which included firing weapons,” Nakazato said.

He said he believes softening the image of the military facilities was among the major reasons for hiring Japanese nationals as security guards.

“It gives a more approachable image of a military base when Okinawans see one of their people standing at the gate,” he said. “I think we played a role as a kind of a cushion to ease tension between the military and local communities.”

He said that role remains the same to this day.

Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.

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