Tiny base assimilates into Japanese town
To allay locals’ health fears, housing built close to radar
By TERI WEAVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 8, 2007
In Shariki, selecting the right place for American workers’ housing involved more than worrying about a daily commute.
For the 100 or so government contractors and two U.S. Army soldiers now living in and around the tiny Japanese village near the Sea of Japan, setting up a homestead also sent a message about their mission, according to the company commander at Shariki Communications Site.
“There were some people that told us, if you build that housing (elsewhere), it will be a public relations disaster,” said Capt. Will Hunter, whose unit in Shariki is attached to the 94th Army Air and Missile Defense Command in Hawaii. “It implies that you don’t think it’s safe to live around the radar.”
The radar is the AN/TPY-2, which points high-powered radio waves westward toward mainland Asia to hunt for enemy missiles headed east toward America or its allies. The system is serious — it could burn a person standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, Hunter says.
That hasn’t happened, he says, and occasional testing by the Americans and Japanese has found the radar does not interfere with local cell phones or harm local farming. Still, showing is better than telling, and that means building a housing complex for the Americans only a five-minute drive from the site.
It’s an apt example of how community relations can take on special meaning when a seaside village of 5,500 Japanese residents finds itself hosting several dozen Americans.
Hunter, the first commander of the year-old unit, has spent much of the past year making and implementing decisions like housing location. He’s also become a local ambassador of sorts at festivals, parades, Japanese military ceremonies and even afternoon cookouts.
“I think that’s my bigger job,” he said when weighing building relationships with local residents against his other tasks, working with the contractors and ensuring security of the radar site.
First Sgt. Ben Williams, the only other soldier in the unit, has picked up the role as well. Williams has been in the Army 16 years, and this is his first assignment without soldiers to lead and with a foreign language to negotiate. “I’m still feeling this out,” he says.
[JUMPTO]SEE BASE ON PAGE 4On one of his first days in town, he, Hunter and about 20 other workers from base helped drag a 16-ton float for a festival in Goshogawara, the biggest city about 45 minutes from base. “I was drenched,” he said of the sweaty work on the humid summer night.
For Hunter, much of the community relations means establishing safety procedures and conveniences for the Americans. He has set up phone lists and emergency procedures with local police and other officials so languages won’t be barriers to a response to Americans in need.
He’s even collected menus from local restaurants and had them translated to make it easier for the Americans to dine out and for local businesses to attract more customers.
The local community has responded as well. Lt. Col. Masaru Ohta, the Japan Air Self Defense Force’s 21st Air Defense Missile Squadron commander, ensures Americans get invited to festivals and meetings. And the city of Tsugaru, which oversees the smaller community of Shariki, has built a police koban in the village.
“I choose to say this police box was built for us, not because of us,” Hunter says.
Vehicle accidents have been the one sore spot for Hunter. There have been quite a few since the Americans came to Shariki, where an average of 12 meters of snow falls each winter.
Most of the accidents involve simple mistakes, not paying attention or slipping on ice, Hunter says. Still, a couple of Japanese people have been injured and gomen money, traditional compensation and condolence money, has been paid.
“In all honesty, I have beat up the contractors a lot about making their people drive correctly,” Hunter says while driving on a narrow two-lane road through rice paddies. The highway connects Shariki and Goshogawara, the closest place to big-city life that includes karaoke parlors, a dance club and two malls.
It’s hard to have absolute control, however, over a workforce that reports to a private company rather than a company commander, he says.
The Americans work for Raytheon and Chenega Blackwater Solutions, who, respectively, run the missile radar and provide security at the base.
In the past year, a couple of workers were sent home as punishment. But Hunter has no direct control over their privilege to hold a license, as he does over soldiers.
At the Shariki police station, inspector Yoshifumi Nakagawa warmly welcomes Hunter and gives business cards printed in English and Japanese to the two members of his staff - Williams and translator Yuko Akita.
Nakagawa was happy to learn Hunter has an interpreter, his first even though the Army unit officially stood up on Sept. 26, 2006. Previously, the captain relied on a handful of the contractors who speak Japanese, or a few of Ohta’s command staff who speak English.
The police official and the translator exchange cell phone numbers, then Nakagawa praises Hunter for participating in a recent community walk. It’s a formal thank-you for two men who see each other regularly. Both take the same language exchange course on Fridays, and the group has dinner together once a month.
Ohta credits the Americans’ involvement in the community with appeasing some of the fears first raised when the radar was built. “Because they participate in local events,” he says through a translator, “now there are no objections.”
The objections haven’t quite gone away. A Japanese Ministry of Defense office, at Shariki city hall, is where the Defense Facilities Administration Bureau works as liaison between the community and the U.S. Army base, Hunter says. It’s also where locals can go with concerns about the radar site.
In the past year, complaints have fallen off so much that the office has reduced its hours twice.
A couple of months ago, Hunter met with the bureau to hear about any recent complaints. One resident said his pacemaker had acted oddly when he drove on Shariki’s main street. Another man said his radio transmitted only static at 5 a.m. on a recent day. Both men suspected the radar.
“Things like that still come up,” Hunter said. “I think for the most part, people understand the radar is not going to hurt them.”