Hiroji Yamashiro was arrested for cutting a wire fence at a protest against a US military base in Okinawa in October. He has been detained ever since.
Yamashiro, the chairman of the Okinawa Peace Movement Centre, has been a fixture of the non-violent opposition to US military base expansion on the island.
The 64-year-old 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 one 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 … [Yamashiro] took a central role in opposing the military base. His detention is a warning to others, just as construction enters a key phase.”
In 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 said: “This is a political crackdown on the struggle in Henoko and Takae and non-violent 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.
Today, Okinawa hosts about 30 separate American military installations, some in densely populated areas. The bases are not popular with the local population.
History of resistance
Yamashiro was leading resistance against the relocation of a US airbase from Futenma to Henoko Bay, which is particularly unpopular. According to one survey, 84% of Okinawans are in opposition.
Resistance to the US military presence in Okinawa has a long and complex history.
In 1952, Japan and the US signed the Treaty of San Francisco, which ended post-war US occupation of Japan but allowed for the retention of military control over Okinawa.
By the time the US returned overall administrative authority for Okinawa to Tokyo in 1972, 27 years of military occupation and impunity had left a deep impact — and a culture of civil resistance.
In 1955, amid widespread forced demolition and eviction at the hands of US troops, Shoko Ahagon — who lived from 1901-2002 — began organising 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 organised a seven-month march around the main island of Okinawa to raise awareness of mistreatment at the hands of US forces. It was dubbed the “Beggars’ March” in local, US-controlled media.
Ahagon also drew up non-violent principles for resisting the US military that continued to influence the movement even after Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972. Yamashiro continues to adhere to these principles.
Some say Okinawa’s objection to US military base construction is about more than uncompleted post-colonial independence.
Taisuke Komatsu, United Nations advocacy coordinator for the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism, says the issue of US military occupation is more about the structural discrimination Okinawans have suffered for decades. He describes the situation as a slap in the face to a people who have been neglected by Tokyo for so long.
The delegitimisation of Okinawan lives has been further worsened by a history of impunity for sexual violence perpetrated against the local population by US military personnel.
This started in the 1950s when six-year-old Yumiko Nagayama was raped and murdered. Several high-profile cases in the intervening decades remain central grievances against the anti-US base from Okinawans.
Tokyo’s disregard for local civil and political opposition to further base construction reinforces Komatsu’s claims of second-class treatment by the central government.
In 2013, all of Okinawa’s 41 municipal governors and members of parliament submitted a petition to Tokyo to block the transfer of the US airbase to Henoko Bay.
The next year, rather than ceding to organised local opposition, Tokyo announced it would move forward with its plans.
After the announcement, protests swelled to several thousand, 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 US Marine Corps Camp Schwab.
Campaigners organised speeches in which Okinawan legislators and others denounced the re-militarisation 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 the incumbent governor who was sympathetic to base expansion.
Before the election, a high-level cabinet secretary said the results of the election would not impact Tokyo’s plans. In January 2015, Tokyo kept its promise, announcing the airbase relocation would continue.
Since then, demonstrators have maintained a 24-hour sit-in, swarmed the bay in kayaks and organised large-scale demonstrations in Okinawa’s capital, Naha. In June last year, a few weeks after an American working at another US airbase was arrested for raping and murdering a Japanese woman, an estimated 65,000 people demonstrated in Naha against US military base expansion.
The Okinawa Peace Movement Centre has been active in leading nonviolent resistance against the Henoko relocation. Yamashiro’s apparent politically-motivated and lengthy detention marks a concerning escalation in Tokyo’s abusive treatment of non-violent Okinawan activists, which must be countered by an escalation in resistance tactics.
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-militarisation. This influences his administration’s unflinching support for military base expansion in Okinawa regardless of local civil and political opposition.
Japan is 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 is willing to embrace authoritarian tactics to suppress non-violent 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 US under President Donald Trump.
Unfortunately, with the wave of state-level Republican-backed anti-protest bills sweeping the United States and Trump’s own embrace of the criminalising or delegitimising 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.
On March 10, Akira Maeda of the Japanese Workers’ Committee for Human Rights criticised Japan before the Human Rights Council in Geneva over its treatment of Yamashiro.
Such gestures are an important scaling up of civil and political resistance to Japan’s persecution of non-violent activists, aimed at attracting broader international attention.
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.
A strong showing of international support for Yamashiro — such as through actions like the Amnesty International letter campaign to Abe, along with a general campaign for an end to Tokyo’s persecution of non-violent Okinawan activists — may contribute to holding Tokyo accountable.
[Abridged from Waging Nonviolence.]