CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The Japanese government is expected to propose a plan to allow some local students to attend schools at U.S. military bases on Okinawa to improve their English skills and prepare them for college.
Foreign Minister Taro Kono, who is slated to visit the southern island prefecture this week, could unveil the proposal as soon as Friday, according to Japan’s Kyodo news agency.
Specific schools, grade levels and the number of students remains unclear; however, the report said some Tokyo officials believe that improving Okinawan students’ English skills could eventually lower the island’s high youth employment rate while helping to extinguish festering tensions with the U.S. military.
Unemployment for ages 20 to 24 was nearly 9 percent in 2016, according to a labor-force survey conducted by the prefecture. That is more than double the average unemployment rate across all age groups.
National labor surveys use slightly different reporting categories; however, unemployment was 5.1 percent last year for Japanese nationals ages 15-24.
Kono is scheduled bring up the plan during separate meetings with Okinawa’s anti-base Gov. Takeshi Onaga and III Marine Expeditionary Force commander Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, the Kyodo report said.
A Marine Corps spokesman said it would be inappropriate to comment on the plan at this time. Onaga’s office also declined to comment.
Japanese students have been able to attend Department of Defense Education Activity schools for years, though families are required to pay tuition and can enroll only on a space-available basis.
“Eligibility requirements for students in overseas areas are governed by various instructions and regulations, some at the Department of Defense level,” said Marc Calero, a DODEA spokesman on Okinawa. “We look forward to learning more about the details of a proposal from the Japanese government.”
There are 13 DODEA schools on Okinawa: two high schools, three middle schools and eight elementary schools. Calero declined to say how much space is available at those schools and how many Japanese students currently attend them.
Few Japanese families choose to send their children to on-base schools, the Kyodo report said.
Any move to integrate Okinawan students into the U.S. military education system is being viewed as a double-edged sword, the report said. The island’s robust protest movement, which enjoys popular support according to polls, may see it as further entrenching the military presence there.
Protesters have been fighting for decades to reduce the footprint of American forces on Okinawa, which is home to about half of the 50,000 U.S. troops based in Japan.
Okinawa has also been the scene of several high-profile crimes — including rapes and homicides — perpetrated by U.S. servicemembers and government employees in recent years that have only added to divisions.
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