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Japanese workers’ treatment at US bases raises Defense Ministry responsibility questions

  • December 14, 2021
  • , The Mainichi
  • English Press

YOKOHAMA — Amid increasing cases of workplace conflict including harassment at U.S. military bases in Japan, some are questioning the Defense Ministry’s accountability for the poor working environments Japanese employees find themselves in, with one expert calling it problematic that the government cannot intervene in cases due to the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).


Military bases in Japan have been host to numerous workplace conflict incidents, including a power harassment case a court later ruled was the Japanese government’s responsibility. In that instance, a Japanese woman who worked at the Naval Air Facility Atsugi in Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo, filed a suit claiming she developed an adjustment disorder after enduring verbal abuse and other forms of harassment by her American boss. She maintained the national government should be held responsible. In November 2021, the Tokyo District Court ordered the Japanese government pay 550,000 yen (roughly $4,840) after recognizing that the U.S. military harassed the plaintiff.


Based on the SOFA, employees at U.S. military bases are indirectly hired by U.S. Forces Japan. The Defense Ministry acts as their employer while the U.S. military receives their labor services. In principle, the employer, in this case the Defense Ministry, is said to be legally obliged to be considerate of employee safety and workplace environments in accordance with labor laws.


The ruling did not recognize the plaintiff’s claim that the Japanese government violated its duty to consider workers’ safety, stating that they are “merely subject to secondary obligations of urging the U.S. take necessary measures including monitoring and conducting investigations.”


But the court did recognize that the U.S. military neglected its obligation to prevent power harassment despite its duty to consider workers’ safety. The ruling then stated that under customary international law, the U.S. military is exempt from civil jurisdiction in Japan, and concluded the Japanese government is in turn responsible when the U.S. military violates obligations to consider workers’ safety.


Haruhiko Ogawa, a lawyer representing the plaintiff, called the ruling “important” because it recognized the Japanese government’s responsibility. “I hope this creates a path for victims to be able to demand compensation without giving up and accepting the situation,” he said.


Another worker in his 20s who was assigned to the Naval Air Facility Atsugi is also poised to sue the Japanese government with the Yokohama District Court. He claims he was unable to return to his place of employment after taking time off over a conflict at work, because his employer, the Defense Ministry, did not take appropriate action toward the U.S. military. The man argues that he was left without pay for around a year and a half and plans to demand a total of about 5.5 million yen, or roughly $48,400, in consolation money and wages for the time he could have worked. He told the Mainichi Shimbun, “I had wanted the national government to take some sort of action, as it is the employer.”


There have been other cases at separate bases where issues do not improve even after it has been pointed out that Japan’s labor laws are being violated. Nagasaki Prefecture’s U.S. Navy base Fleet Activities Sasebo unilaterally notified its Japanese security guards that shifts would change from eight to 12 hours, while Kanagawa Prefecture’s Yokosuka Naval Base forced staff to join drills where they were pepper sprayed in the face.


The All Japan Garrison Forces Labor Union has demanded that the Defense Ministry deal with power harassment issues growing rampant at Camp Zama in Kanagawa Prefecture, but the problems have not been solved. Toshiyuki Iijima, executive chairman of the union’s Kanagawa district headquarters, said, “There’s no progress because of the Defense Ministry’s lack of negotiating ability or sense of responsibility for labor management.”


The SOFA allows U.S. Forces to use military bases in Japan, and it is difficult for the Japanese government to become involved in their management. Kibihiko Haruta, a labor law professor at Okinawa University and expert on labor issues for military base workers, used the term “black box” to describe the situation, in which the national government cannot directly intervene in bases’ management because the U.S. military issues instructions and orders to workers there.


Haruta pointed out, “Despite being unable to secure measures that effectively prevent harassment on bases, the current system makes the Japanese government cover expenses for damages in lawsuits and lets the U.S. military avoid responsibility. That’s the biggest problem.”


(Japanese original by Nami Takata, Yokohama Bureau)

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