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Base closing plans don’t please all Okinawans

Date Posted: 2006-05-22

As Okinawa a celebrates its 34th anniversary as a Japanese prefecture, one large group of workers wants to see the American presence continue.

Okinawa reverted to Japan from U.S. control 34 years ago this week, and Americans moved from being the hosts to the guests. Despite the political change in Okinawa, life continued much the same for thousands of local residents who work on the bases. Even as anti-military groups conducted demonstrations Monday, base workers were expressing apprehension at how a reduced American military presence can affect their livelihoods.

“Okinawa’s economy has grown up with the bases,” said a pro-military group leader. “The bases will always be important. He noted that nearly 10,000 Okinawa residents work directly for the U.S. military, and that tens of thousands of others derive significant income as a result of military bases, troops and families spending money here.

The Secretary General of the Base Workers Union, Masaharu Shimonaka, says more than 9,000 are currently employed by the American military. He points out that more than 20,000 applicants apply each year for the coveted American Master Labor Contract positions, which pay much more than other Okinawa jobs. The military bases hired 531 new workers last year, and Shimonaka says there have already been 600 applicants for positions this year.

Shimonaka and his wife have both worked for the U.S. forces for many years, and say “base worker pay is better than off base.” The couple earns nearly $4,600 a month for a 40-hour work week that includes Saturdays, Sundays and holidays off, plus bonuses.

The proposed transfer of 8,000 U.S. Marines to Guam is projected to cost one-third of the local labor force on the bases. In real terms, Shimonaka says, it will put 3,000 people out of jobs and into an economy where there are relatively few jobs available, and those at a compensation level well below what the Americans pay.

Union officials say there have been a lot of restless, sleepless nights recently as workers contemplate their fate. Base workers argue that the Okinawa economy will suffer heavily from the troop withdrawals, with little prospect of replacement employment sources.

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