Photo/IllutrationBase workers stage a protest in front of the front gate of U.S. Army Camp Zama in Kanagawa Prefecture. (Shigeo Yoshimura)

At U.S. Army Camp Zama, two Japanese women employees were ordered to work late at an after-school child-care center for many days in succession without their consent.

One of the workers, who was eight months pregnant, along with another employee, were told by their supervisor that the decision was made by the U.S. military without regard to their personal circumstances. The woman, who was about to marry, had no choice but to leave the child-care center due to the improper order.

These are part of a series of human rights violation cases where Japanese staff were abused by American supervisors that have been reported within U.S. military bases in Kanagawa Prefecture.

In a rare move, the All Japan Garrison Forces Labor Union, which was informed of power harassment and other complaints at U.S. Army Camp Zama and U.S. Naval Air Facility Atsugi, started mounting a protest.

“The issue is urgent because a pregnant staffer has had to work with no consideration given to the mother’s health and a false charge case has been reported,” said Ai Kumaki, secretary-general of the union’s Sagamino branch, which covers the two bases.

About 9,000 Japanese and others work at bases in the prefecture and 6,000 of these employees are members of the union. Both numbers are the highest throughout Japan.

According to the Sagamino branch, the number of abuses by American managers topped 10 over the last year, causing victims to develop disorders, forcing them to be hospitalized and quit their jobs, although only one such incident previously was reported annually.

“We are flooded with complaints like a refuge for troubled people, but the reported violations likely represent just the tip of the iceberg,” Kumaki said.


A postal facility employee, one of the two women ordered to work late at Camp Zama, was repeatedly verbally threatened, demoted for no reason and finally had to be hospitalized.

At a day-care center in Naval Air Facility Atsugi, a female worker was improperly reassigned and told that she faced punishment as she was suspected of leaking information.

She took a medical leave but a survey by the union revealed that her supervisor from the U.S. military was responsible for the information leakage.

Viewing a succession of abuses as “a universal issue,” the labor union began talks with the Japanese Defense Ministry--the ostensible employer of those working at U.S. military facilities in Japan--in October on behalf of laborers victimized in the five most serious cases among other abuses.

But working conditions in U.S. bases have yet to improve sufficiently, according to a union representative. Subsequently, the union staged a demonstration on the morning of Nov. 1 in front of Camp Zama.

Leaflets detailing the problem were also distributed around four bases, and three Upper and Lower House lawmakers as well as seven local assembly members joined the union’s activity to eradicate worker exploitation and assist victims.

Although the union normally deals with individual labor problems on a personal basis, as many abuse cases have been reported at numerous facilities, it decided to publicly lodge a protest.

As the Defense Ministry notified the union that the work shifts of the expectant mother would be changed back to their original ones just before noon on Nov. 1, the labor union suspended the rally.

“We will take proper steps to improve the working conditions of union members,” said a ministry official in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun.

Kazuo Yamamoto, chairman of the Sagamino branch, however, said that other problems, including “the especially important instance” involving the false charge, have yet to be resolved.


Behind the problem is unfair labor mechanisms where Japanese staff cannot be protected from abusive managers.

Those working at U.S. bases are ostensibly employed and assigned to their workplaces by the Defense Ministry. Their salaries are covered by Tokyo’s so-called “sympathy budget,” which is host nation support for the U.S. military.

But the reality is that those employees are subjected to management by American supervisors.

Officials from the Defense Ministry, which is jointly responsible for their management pro forma, cannot enter bases without the U.S. military’s approval, since the facilities are controlled by Washington under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement.

It is thus difficult for the ministry to ascertain the working conditions of Japanese workers.

According to the labor union’s central executive committee, another problem is that workers at U.S. bases are not fully protected by laws and regulations that apply to private companies in Japan. They are not treated as public servants as well, although they engage in tasks related to national security.

“Workers are managed by the U.S. military in an increasingly threatening manner in the extraterritorial facilities situated in Japan,” said Tomoyuki Iijima, chairman of the union’s Kanagawa regional headquarters.

“Fearing retaliation, workers find it difficult to even speak up as union members. We will take measures without simply giving up, making a protest in a noticeable way for people in vulnerable positions.”