By Michael Caster
On October 17, Hiroji Yamashiro was arrested for cutting a wire fence at a protest against a U.S. military base in Okinawa. He has been held in detention ever since. Yamashiro, the chairman of the Okinawa Peace Movement Center, has been a fixture of the nonviolent opposition to military base expansion on the island for years.
The 64-year-old Yamashiro had undergone cancer treatment in 2015, and medical tests two months into his detention revealed a decline in his health. Nevertheless, since his arrest almost five months ago, he has been held in pre-trial detention — mostly in solitary confinement, denied bail and any contact with his family. Three days after his arrest, the authorities added additional charges of obstruction and assault. A third charge of obstruction was added a month later, for an incident that allegedly took place almost a year earlier.
The two others arrested with Yamashiro also remain in detention.
“Prosecutors have repeatedly gone through pre-trial procedures that are usually not required for petty offenses such as the ones Mr. Yamashiro is accused of, and every time they do that, the date of the first hearing has been pushed back,” explained one of Yamashiro’s lawyers, Shunji Miyake. “I think the prosecutors’ intention is clearly to prolong Mr. Yamashiro’s detention.”
Retired judge Isamu Nakasone agreed, saying, “It’s clear that the purpose of detaining him is to stop the anti-base protests … He took a central role in opposing the military base. His detention is a warning to others, just as construction enters a key phase.”
This January, Amnesty International launched an urgent action campaign for his release, noting, “the arrest of Hiroji Yamashiro, a symbolic opposition figure, has had a chilling effect on others who are peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. Some activists now hesitate to join the protest for fear of reprisals.”
At a press conference on February 18, six prefectural parliamentarians released a statement reiterating calls for Yamashiro’s immediate release. Their statement read, in part: “This is a political crackdown on the struggle in Henoko and Takae and nonviolent resistance by Uchinanchu [Okinawan people] who are seeking peace and the restoration of their dignity.”
Despite coordinated advocacy, the Japanese Supreme Court rejected an appeal last month for Yamashiro’s release, pending trial. The opening hearing is scheduled for March 17.
A history of resistance
Today, Okinawa hosts some 30 separate American military installations, some in densely populated areas, that are not popular with the local population.
Yamashiro was leading resistance against the relocation of a U.S. airbase from Futenma to Henoko Bay, which is particularly unpopular. According to one survey, 84 percent of Okinawans are in opposition.
In 1952, Japan and the United States signed the Treaty of San Francisco, which ended post-war U.S. occupation of Japan but allowed for the retention of military control over Okinawa. By the time the United States returned overall administrative authority for Okinawa to Tokyo in 1972, 27 years of military occupation and impunity had left a deep impact and also a culture of civil resistance.
In 1955, amid widespread forced demolition and eviction at the hands of U.S. troops, Shoko Ahagon — who lived from 1901-2002 — began organizing Okinawans in resistance. Remembered by some today as the “Gandhi of Okinawa,” Ahagon, a Christian, was inspired by Gandhi’s struggle against British rule in India. In July 1955, Ahagon organized a seven-month march around the main island of Okinawa to raise awareness of mistreatment at the hands of U.S. forces. It was dubbed the “Beggars’ March” in local, U.S.-controlled media. Ahagon also drew up nonviolent principles for resisting the U.S. military that continued to influence the movement even after Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972, including Yamashiro, who adheres to them.
Some argue that Okinawa’s objection to U.S. military base construction is about more than uncompleted post-colonial independence.
Taisuke Komatsu, U.N. Advocacy Coordinator for the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism, argues that the issue of U.S. military occupation is more about the structural discrimination Okinawans have suffered for decades. He described the situation as a slap in the face to a people who have been neglected by Tokyo for so long.
The delegitimization of Okinawan lives has been further exacerbated by a history of impunity for sexual violence perpetrated against the local population by U.S. military personnel, beginning in the 1950s when six-year-old Yumiko Nagayama was raped and murdered. Several high-profile cases in the intervening decades remain central tenants of anti-U.S. base grievances from Okinawans.
Looking at Tokyo’s present disregard for local civil and political opposition to further base construction reinforces Komatsu’s claims of second-class treatment by the central government.
In January 2013, all of Okinawa’s 41 municipal governors and members of its parliament submitted a petition to Tokyo to block the transfer of the U.S. airbase to Henoko Bay. The next year, rather than ceding to organized local opposition, Tokyo announced it would move forward with its plans.
Following the announcement, protests swelled to several thousand in September and October in 2014, although some had already been occupying the space since 1996, when the proposed relocation was first discussed. Activists swarmed the bay in kayaks. Others marched to nearby U.S. Marine Corps Camp Schwab. Campaigners organized speeches in which Okinawan legislators and others denounced the re-militarization of Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the ongoing discrimination of Okinawans. The authorities responded with disproportionate force.
In November 2014, Takeshi Onaga’s election as governor of Okinawa was seen as a victory for the peace movement. Onaga had campaigned on strict opposition to military base construction, unlike incumbent Gov. Nakaima who was sympathetic to base expansion. Before the election, a high-level cabinet secretary said the results of the election wouldn’t impact Tokyo’s plans, and in January 2015, Tokyo kept its promise, announcing that the airbase relocation would still continue.
Since then, demonstrators have maintained a 24-hour sit-in, swarmed the bay in kayaks and organized large-scale demonstrations in Okinawa’s capital. In June 2016, a few weeks after an American working at another U.S. airbase was arrested for raping and murdering a Japanese woman, an estimated 65,000 people demonstrated in the Okinawan capital against U.S. military base expansion.
The Okinawa Peace Movement Center, Hiroji Yamashiro’s organization, has been active in leading nonviolent resistance against the Henoko relocation. His apparent politically-motivated and lengthy detention marks a concerning escalation in Tokyo’s abusive treatment of nonviolent Okinawan activists, which must be countered by an escalation in resistance tactics.
An uncertain future
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has frequently cited the security concerns of an unpredictable North Korea and increasingly aggressive China as justification for what many have argued is a policy of re-militarization. This influences his administration’s unflinching support for military base expansion in Okinawa regardless of local civil and political opposition.
Japan is clearly entitled to ensure its national security, but international standards are clear that human rights are fundamental to peace and security. It is a shame that Japan seems willing to embrace authoritarian tactics to suppress nonviolent activism in the name of security. Japan’s human rights obligations toward Okinawans resisting further base construction will surely be tested by the new relationship between Abe and the United States under President Trump.
Unfortunately, with the wave of state-level Republican-backed anti-protest bills sweeping the United States and Trump’s own embrace of the criminalizing or delegitimizing of nonviolent activists, Japan is unlikely to find itself rebuked for its repressive handling of Okinawan dissidents unless alternative channels of pressure are strengthened.
In early March, several supporters gathered in New York outside the Japanese consulate, holding banners calling for Yamashiro’s release. A week later, on March 10, Akira Maeda of the Japanese Workers’ Committee for Human Rights criticized Japan before the Human Rights Council in Geneva over its treatment of Yamashiro. Such gestures are an important scaling up of tactics in civil and political resistance to Japan’s persecution of nonviolent activists, aimed at attracting broader international attention.
When local channels of resistance stall, such tactics are often capable of generating new allies and coalitions to pressure domestic governments. What is needed is not only the growth of solidarity networks but also the expanding of resistance efforts that target Tokyo’s international pillars of support. Utilizing U.N. human rights mechanisms — such as the Human Rights Council or the Special Rapporteurs on the freedom of expression, assembly or human rights defenders — are worthwhile moves from Japanese civil society.
Activists in the United States are in a position to pressure the U.S. government — either through letters to Congress regarding U.S.-Japan relations or by including such demands in active efforts against broader U.S. military expansion.
A strong showing of international support for Yamashiro — especially through actions like the Amnesty International letter campaign to Prime Minister Abe, along with a general campaign for an end to Tokyo’s persecution of nonviolent Okinawan activists — may contribute to holding Tokyo accountable. Ultimately, this is not only about Yamashiro’s release but also a guarantee from Tokyo that it will respect the rights of everyone engaged in nonviolence resistance.