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Japanese security staff at US military bases forced to join dangerous pepper spray drills

This Sept. 23, 2020, file photo shows the Yokosuka Naval Base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, where Japanese security guards were made to participate in U.S.-military drills using pepper spray. (Mainichi/Nami Takata)

YOKOSUKA -- Japanese security guards were pepper sprayed in the face during a total of six drills held since July 2020 at Yokosuka Naval Base, south of Tokyo, despite calls demanding their suspension following a past incident in which a guard was sent to a hospital.

    The Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) specifies that as a general rule, Japan's laws and regulations apply to the rights of Japanese workers employed inside U.S. military bases, and an expert says the spraying drill is "an act that exposes the public to danger, and is deemed a violation of the labor law."

    According to a source close to the matter, the drills were held between July and October last year on the premises of the Yokosuka Naval Base located in the eastern Japan city of Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, and a total of 13 individuals participated in them. In the drills, security guards were pepper sprayed around their eyelids while their eyes were closed, and then required to demonstrate their skills catching criminals in a simulation exercise. The substance used in the drills was OC spray, which the security guards have also carried with them since 2005. It contains pepper extracts, and affects the eyes, nose, and throat.

    A security guard who participated in the drill responded to a Mainichi Shimbun inquiry, saying, "It hurts like you've burned yourself. The liquid got into my eyes, but I was forced to open them." The drill apparently continued even after the guard teared up, had a runny nose, and experienced difficulty breathing. They said that even though they washed their face immediately after the drill, the pain lasted until the following day.

    A male security guard in his 40s was sent to hospital by ambulance after experiencing breathing difficulties during a 2005 drill. According to another security guard at the scene at the time, during the exercise the man became unable to stand up and his face went pale. Although the guard asked the U.S. military supervisor to call an ambulance, his request was rejected, and he apparently notified paramedics himself.

    After the incident the training sessions were suspended, but a notice announcing their resumption was issued around February 2020. Security guards and others have addressed the Defense Ministry's South Kanto Defense Bureau -- their employer -- via the All Japan Garrison Forces Labor Union, and demanded that the pepper spray drills be canceled. In response, the defense bureau reportedly explained, "The drills' purpose is to teach the appropriate use of pepper spray. U.S. military personnel receive the same training." One security guard working at Yokosuka Naval Base said candidly, "I've always questioned why we, who are not even soldiers, need to participate in the drills."

    According to the All Japan Garrison Forces Labor Union, similar pepper spray drills were also scheduled for other U.S. military bases in Japan. But the plans were halted at Camp Zama, a U.S. Army post in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, where a security guard injured their eye during a pepper spray drill several years ago, and at the U.S. Navy's Sasebo Base in the southwestern Japan prefecture of Nagasaki after opposition by employees on the ground and the national labor union. The drills are conducted at the Atsugi Naval Base in Kanagawa Prefecture under conditions including having health care workers present at the site.

    A senior official at a branch of the All Japan Garrison Forces Labor Union conjectured that "the necessity of drills differs among military bases" and that "there may be many cases where it's decided at the discretion of the base commander at the time."

    Article 12, clause 5 of the SOFA stipulates that "except as may otherwise be mutually agreed," wages, labor conditions, and the rights of workers should be governed by the legislation of Japan. The South Kanto Defense Bureau said that there have been no other special agreements made regarding the drills in question.

    Masahiko Goto, an attorney and expert on the SOFA, highlighted the problem by saying, "The Japanese government, which is the employer in this case, must protect the safety of Japanese employees. The drills in question have exposed workers to danger, and count as a violation of the Labor Contract Act that clearly stipulates the obligation to give consideration to the safety of workers."

    Regarding this claim, the South Kanto Defense Bureau expressed its view that the drills "give thorough consideration to safety and the statement that it's a violation of the labor law is unfitting." In response to written questions by Yuki Waseda, a House of Representatives member of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, a Cabinet decision was made last October to approve a written answer indicating that it "recognizes that the U.S. military is carrying out drills appropriately at present."

    A public relations representative of the Yokosuka military base explained in an inquiry that drills were necessary to "better understand the effectiveness of the spray as well as what individuals should do when they get sprayed." They also said that the drills will continue to be held in the future.

    Regarding the rights of Japanese employees inside U.S. military bases, there have been cases where workers with the U.S. military forces have taken actions that may have breached the SOFA or laws of Japan. In May 2019, a security guard at the Sasebo Base walked on a public street outside the base while carrying a handgun, as per U.S.-military instructions, which became an issue as a violation of the SOFA and the Act for Controlling the Possession of Firearms or Swords and Other Such Weapons.

    A senior official at a separate All Japan Garrison Forces Labor Union branch said, "Security guards who are just civilians are being forced to hold firearms not permitted under Japanese law, and are being coerced into doing the same drills as military personnel. Who has responsibility in situations where they get injured or injure other people? The issue in question is only the tip of the iceberg."

    (Japanese original by Nami Takata, Yokohama Bureau)

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