Presence of US Military Base in Okinawa Means Jail Without Trial for Protestors
March 21, 2017
Anna Field / The Washington Post
After five months in detention without trial, one of the leaders of Okinawa's movement against the expansion of US military bases in the southern Japanese island prefecture has been released. Hiroji Yamashiro, a 64-year-old who leads the Okinawa Peace Action Center, is one of the most vocal opponents of the construction of new Marine Corps facilities in Okinawa. The overwhelming majority of Okinawans oppose the base.
Many locals, particularly older ones who remember the aftermath of World War II, are opposed to the massive expansion at Camp Schwab and say Okinawa shoulders too much of the burden of Japan's security alliance with the United States. (Yuki Oda/The Washington Post)
Okinawan Anti-base Activist Released
After Five Months in Detention
Anna Field / The Washington Post
TOKYO (March 19, 2017) -- After five months in detention without trial, one of the leaders of Okinawa's movement against the expansion of US military bases in the southern Japanese island prefecture has been released on bail.
Hiroji Yamashiro, a 64-year-old who leads the Okinawa Peace Action Center, had been held under highly restrictive conditions in jail while facing relatively minor charges. But Japan's high court upheld an Okinawan district court decision -- which local prosecutors had appealed -- and set him free.
"I couldn't be happier to see everyone again, everyone that I've been longing to see again," Yamashiro said after he was released Saturday night, greeted by crowds of cheering well-wishers.
Yamashiro has been one of the most vocal opponents of US military construction in Okinawa, leading protests against the building of new Marine Corps facilities.
Such protests have helped delay a plan by Washington and Tokyo to close the Marine Corps air station at Futenma, a huge piece of prime land in the heart of Okinawa's most densely packed area, and replace it with a new facility next to an existing base in a more isolated area near Henoko.
The overwhelming majority of Okinawans oppose the relocation of the base from Futenma to Henoko, according to local newspaper polls. They say Okinawa bears too much of the burden of Japan's military alliance with the United States, as it represents only 1 percent of Japan's land mass but houses 74 percent of the US bases in the country, and that the air station should be put in another prefecture.
In October, Yamashiro was arrested on suspicion of cutting a wire fence around a Marine Corps helipad construction site in the forest near Takae in northern Okinawa. Three days later, prosecutors included another charge: interfering with public officers' duties and causing bodily injury. They alleged that Yamashiro grabbed a civil servant from the Okinawa Defense Bureau and shook him, bruising his arm and hurting his neck, about two months earlier.
Then, in late November, prosecutors added a third charge: obstruction, accusing Yamashiro of putting concrete blocks on the road in front of the site at Henoko 10 months earlier. Other protesters saw a political motivation behind the staggered charges: In Japan, suspects can be held for 23 days before they must be indicted or released.
"Considering the relatively minor nature of the charges, it's very unusual to keep him detained for so long," said one of Yamashiro's attorneys, Chihiro Kawazu.
At his first court hearing Friday, Yamashiro pleaded guilty to the charge of cutting the fence. He pleaded not guilty to the two other charges. His attorneys asked for him to be released on bail, and the district court agreed, but prosecutors appealed the decision. On Saturday night, the high court agreed with the lower court's ruling.
Supporters and some legal experts viewed Yamashiro's extended detention as an attempt by authorities to silence a prominent opponent of the bases and to send a message to other protesters.
"Five months in detention before trial. No visitors except lawyers for all that time," said Lawrence Repeta, a US lawyer who teaches at Meiji University in Tokyo. "This is obviously a denial of the right to be presumed innocent. In cases like this in Japan, the punishment comes first and the trial later."
Yamashiro had been held in a 52-square-foot cell and had not been allowed visits from his family until last week, when he was permitted to see his wife. Supporters of Yamashiro have been protesting outside Naha District Court every weekday, said Katsunori Teruya, a friend.
Amnesty International had been calling for Yamashiro to be released and for him to be allowed visits from his family. "Detaining him for such a long time raises concerns that this action is designed to have a chilling effect on other activists because he's such a symbolic figure," said Hiroka Shoji, an East Asia researcher at Amnesty.
Okinawan police representatives have denied any political motivation behind the detention.
Yamashiro's next hearing is set for April 17.
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.
Protest Voices: 'Okinawans Have Been Treated
Like We Are Disposable for Too Long'
Anna Fifield / The Washington Post
(February 8, 2016) -- Between several dozen and several hundred Japanese people have been gathering at the gates to Camp Schwab, a US Marine Corps base on the southern island of Okinawa, every day for 18 months to protest the expansion of the base into an air station.
The project involves two runways being built on reclaimed land out into Henoko Bay, a pristine area that is home to the dugong, an endangered manatee-like mammal. Almost all Okinawans want the current Marine air station further south on the the island at Futenma to be shut down. But there is fierce opposition to relocating it elsewhere on the small, crowded island.
Here are some of the voices from the protest:
Fumiko Shimabukuro, 86, a survivor of the Battle of Okinawa who hid in caves with her mother and younger brother during the war.
"I come here almost every day, unless I'm sick. I'm a survivor of the war and I experienced all the hardships of war, and I never want to see this island turned into a sea of blood again. I saw a baby decapitated by shrapnel.
I drank water from a pond at night only to discover in the morning that there were bodies floating in it. I would feel guilty if I didn't put all of my energy into fighting this base. Okinawans have been treated like second-class citizens, like we are disposable, for too long."
Misaki, 16, and Hanano, 11, with their mother Akane Inada. They had come from Kanagawa, near Tokyo, to join the protest.
Misaki: I'm still young so they advise me to stay on this side [away from the gate], but I want to join them over the other side. I want to stop the construction because the dugong is endangered and this bay is famous for its seafood.
Hanano: I think the government side is being unfair because people have been saying that they don't want the base but no one is listening. I write a letter to President Obama every day. I've written 90 letters so far.
Akane: This problem is a problem for all of Japan, but the bases are concentrated on this tiny island. We mainlanders feel responsible that we are putting the burden on Okinawa, so I have come here to express my solidarity and encourage everyone to act together.
Hiroshi Ashitomi, 69, one of the longest-serving protesters
"There are two reasons I'm protesting. One: we inherited this beautiful environment and we want to take care of it, make good use of it, and hand it on to our children. And two: There are too many US military bases in Okinawa.
"Even though the American occupation has ended, we still feel like we're being occupied. I want American citizens to understand how the Okinawan people are feeling."
Etsuko Urashima, a 68-year-old Okinawa resident who writes war history books.
"I live in this area so I've been involved in this protest since 1997. I'm opposed to the new base because we rely on the natural environment to live. If that is destroyed, we won't be able to live here. Not just us, but our children and grandchildren. And I am afraid that if the base is built, we will become embroiled in a war."
Keiichi Yamauchi, a 66-year-old retired junior high school gym teacher from Okinawa who attends the protest once a week.
"We are being bullied by the government and our voices don't get reflected in Japanese government policies. They offer all sorts of facilities but we can't be bought so easily.
"We have this history of being humiliated and the government tries to make it up to by paying us. Don't make fun of us, that's what Mr. Onaga told the government. This is also our strong feeling and we won't give up."
Tomoyuki Kobashigawa, a 73-year-old retiree who travels an hour every day from his home in central Okinawa to the protest site.
"I think singing songs is a way to protest in a non-violent way. I believe in the power of song to convey our message. I used to be a grade school teacher and my students used to tell me not to sing, that my singing was too embarrassing. But two years ago I started singing here. We will secure our future with our own hands. Now is the time to stand up."
Noboru Takeno, a retired high school teacher from Shizuoka, near Tokyo, who comes to the protest four times a year.
"It's important what mainlanders think about this issue. We don't want them to destroy our beautiful ocean, the treasure that Okinawa people have. That's something that even mainlanders don't want.
"We believe that the way the government is handling this is wrong. This is a democratic country so if Okinawan people don't want it, their view should be reflected in the policy. How come they don't listen to Okinawa people? It's unfair."
Tomoki Sugaya, a company worker who came from Tokyo to protest with his two wife, Sachoko, and their children, seven-year-old Saneyuki and seven-month old Yukino.
"I participated in the protests in Tokyo but I feel you can't understand this base problem without coming here. We want to do to everything that we can to stop this. We don't need a base for war. And it's very unfair on Okinawa."
Anna Fifield is The Post's bureau chief in Tokyo, focusing on Japan and the Koreas. She previously reported for the Financial Times from Washington DC, Seoul, Sydney, London and from across the Middle East.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.