Supporters of a prominent opponent of U.S. military bases in Okinawa held a rally Thursday outside the Japanese Consulate in New York calling for his release from more than four months’ detention.
The move came after Japan’s Supreme Court last month denied bail to Hiroji Yamashiro, head of the Okinawa Peace Action Center. Human rights and civil groups are calling for him to be released from what they say is political oppression.
“I suspect the detention is to crush nonviolent (peace) movements in Okinawa. It is a flagrant violation of human rights,” said Noriko Oyama, who led the rally in front of the Japanese Consulate General.
Yamashiro, 64, has led protest groups against the long-opposed bilateral plan to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Ginowan to Nago in Okinawa.
He was arrested in October on suspicion of cutting barbed wire near a U.S. construction site in Higashi, where a helipad was being built. He has also been charged with injuring a Defense Ministry official and obstructing relocation work at another U.S. Marine base in Nago. The nature and seriousness of the injury was not clear.
Amnesty International Japan has called for Yamashiro’s immediate release, saying he does not meet the criteria for being detained because the chances of him destroying evidence concerning his alleged crimes are very low.
Since 2002, at least 270 environmental accidents on U.S. Marine Corps bases on Okinawa have contaminated land and local waterways but, until now, almost none of these incidents has been made public. U.S. Marine internal reports highlight serious flaws in training and suggest that the lessons of past accidents have not been effectively implemented. Moreover, recent USMC guidelines order service members not to inform Japanese authorities of accidents deemed “politically sensitive”, raising concerns that many incidents may have gone unreported.
Catalogued in 403 pages of USMC handbooks and reports obtained under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, the accidents occurred on three of the USMC’s most important installations on Okinawa: MCAS Futenma, Camp Hansen and Camp Schwab. The earliest report is dated June 2002 and the most recent June 2016.
Although the original FOIA request sought documents from 1995 to 2016, only three reports were released for the period between 1995 and 2005. Likewise, no reports for Camp Schwab were released for the years 2008 and 2010, nor were there any documents related to the crash of an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter on Camp Hansen in August 2013. At the time, the crash caused a public outcry because it occurred near a dam and dangerous levels of arsenic were later discovered in the vicinity.1
According to the documents that were released, between 2005 and 2016 MCAS Futenma experienced 156 accidents resulting in the release of 14,003 liters of fuels (including jet fuels and diesel). Between 2004 and 2016, Camp Hansen experienced 71 accidents, including the leak of 2596 liters of fuels and other substances such as 678 liters of antifreeze. Between 2002 and 2016, Camp Schwab experienced 43 incidents, involving 2628 liters of fuel; in 2002, there was a 4024-liter spill of mixed water/POL (Petroleum, Oils And Lubricants) – one of the largest of the recorded accidents.
Of the 270 accidents, it appears that only 6 were reported to Japanese authorities – 3 of which because the USMC required the help of local emergency services to clean up.
Environmental accident handbooks from 2013 and 2015 reveal that USMC staff are under orders not to inform Japanese officials of “non-emergency and/or politically sensitive incidents.” Only when an accident is deemed an emergency that poses a threat to people, drinking water or the environment off base, are marine staff permitted to notify Japanese authorities. The decision whether to classify an incident as “politically sensitive” is left in the hands of the USMC.
On October 28, Defense Minister Inada Tomomi, said she would seek clarification on the policy from the U.S. military and she would press them to report spills promptly to local authorities.2 At the time of publication of this article, the government of Japan had made no updates on the issue.
U.S. Forces Japan spokesman Maj. John Severns defended the policy: “The decision to notify ODB (Okinawa Defense Bureau) is made by USFJ in accordance with Joint Committee agreements,” Severns wrote by email. “These agreements with the Government of Japan describe what situations require notification.”
Even when the USMC decides to report incidents to the Japanese authorities, the FOIA-released documents reveal discrepancies about what is told Tokyo.
In June, 2016 an accident on MCAS Futenma resulted in the spill of 6908 liters of aviation fuel. The internal accident report suggests the accident was due to human error, however Japanese authorities were informed it occurred because of a “valve misalignment.”
Moreover, although USFJ told Japanese authorities the spill had been dealt with “immediately”, the documents reveal it wasn’t fully under control until the following day. USFJ did not inform the Japanese government of the scale of the incident, which ultimately necessitated the disposal of 11 208-liter drums of contaminated earth and 3028 liters of contaminated water.
After the accident, an inside source slammed the safety standards of the USMC at Futenma. The expert explained that the cause of the accident was marines overriding a safety solenoid with a plastic tie. “Such accidents are typical of the U.S. Marines. To put it bluntly, their work is lazy and they act stupidly,” he says.
Activists opposing the relocation of the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a location in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, paddled out into the coastal waters to disrupt preparations for its construction on the 1st of February.
Rice fungus released in at least two sites in early 1960s, documents show.
The U.S. Army tested biological weapons in Okinawa in the early 1960s, when the prefecture was still under U.S. rule, according to U.S. documents obtained by Kyodo News.
In the tests, conducted at least a dozen times between 1961 and 1962, rice blast fungus was released over paddies to see how it affected production, the documents made available by U.S. authorities showed.
Rice blast disease causes lesions to form on the plant, threatening the crop. The fungus, which is known to occur in 85 countries, is estimated to destroy enough rice to feed 60 million people a year.
The U.S. government has previously disclosed information on chemical and biological warfare tests it held at sea and on land in such places as Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Utah.
The United States is believed to have had China and Southeast Asia in mind in developing such crop-harming agents. The U.S. government decided to end all biological weapons programs in 1969.
An international convention against production and possession of biological weapons came into force in 1975.
The obtained documents mention test sites including Nago and Shuri, both in Okinawa, but it is not known whether the experiments were conducted on U.S. bases there.
In the field tests, the army “used a midget duster to release inoculum alongside fields in Okinawa and Taiwan,” measuring dosages at different distances and the effect on crop production, the documents said.
A separate document said: “Field tests for stem rust of wheat and rice blast disease were begun at several sites in the (U.S.) midwest and south and in Okinawa with partial success in the accumulation of useful data.”
After the war, Okinawa was administered by the United States until 1972.
Separate from the latest findings, it has been reported that the U.S. military stored defoliants on Okinawa during the Vietnam War.
According to past reports by Jon Mitchell published in The Japan Times, construction workers unearthed more than 20 rusty barrels from beneath a soccer field in the city of Okinawa in June.
The land was once part of Kadena Air Base — the Pentagon’s largest installation in the Pacific region — but was returned to civilian use in 1987.
Tests revealed that the barrels contained two ingredients of military defoliants used in the Vietnam War: the herbicide 2,4,5-T and 2,3,7,8,-TCDD dioxin. Levels of the highly toxic TCDD in nearby water measured 280 times the safe limit.
The Pentagon has repeatedly denied storing defoliants — including Agent Orange — on Okinawa. Following the discovery, it distanced itself from the barrels.
A representative said the Defense Department was investigating whether the barrels had been buried after the land’s return in 1987, and a U.S. government-sponsored scientist suggested they may merely have contained kitchen or medical waste.
However, the conclusions of the Japanese and international scientific community were unequivocal: Not only did the barrels disprove Pentagon denials of the presence of military defoliants in Japan, but the polluted land also posed a threat to the health of local residents and required immediate remediation.
As a pristine subtropical jungle with endemic species of flora and fauna, Yanbaru in Okinawa Prefecture would seem to have everything going for it to gain World Natural Heritage status.
Except for the proximity of the U.S. military’s anti-guerrilla warfare training.
That sums up the dilemma facing the government as it strives to win listing for the forest in 2018.
As part of those efforts, the government designated the vast area of dark green chinquapin and other evergreen, broad-leaved trees on the northern tip of Okinawa’s main island as a national park in September.
But how to reconcile the jungle warfare exercises at the U.S. Marine Corps’ Northern Training Area with visitors tramping through the forest?
The U.S. military’s imprint is unmistakable. In places, areas are gauged out of the thick forest floor to serve as helipads for use by tilt-rotor Ospreys and other U.S. military helicopters. Each helipad has a diameter of 75 meters.
At ground level, these brown “holes” are only noticeable from up close. But from the air, they are an eyesore.
Six landing pads are at the foot of 503-meter-high Mount Yonahadake and Mount Iyudake, a 446-meter peak to the southwest, near the central part of the planned World Natural Heritage site. Two of them were completed in 2014.
Four others were finished in December after work began in summer in preparation for more intensive U.S. military drills at those sites.
Of particular concern is the Okinawa woodpecker. Many of the birds are believed to roost in the Northern Training Area.
Kuniharu Miyagi, professor emeritus of animal ecology at Okinawa International University, is concerned about the repercussions of helipad construction on local plants and animals.
“The Northern Training Area is situated in a section that is very rich in nature that truly symbolizes the Yanbaru forest,” Miyagi, who also chairs the Okinawa prefectural board of environmental assessment, said before the completion of the helipads. “The construction work itself could have a severe impact on the Okinawa woodpecker and other local creatures.”
He also frets about non-native species gaining a foothold in the forest if they hitch a ride with U.S. military personnel flying in for drills.
A survey by the board of the two helipads in 2015 confirmed the existence of varieties named on the Environment Ministry’s list of invasive alien species, including the creeping daisy, which is native to Central America.
When the government applies, it must exclude the Northern Training Area from the nominated property because it has no jurisdiction over U.S. military installations.
A 5,217-hectare portion of the Yanbaru forest is covered in the government’s nomination. The training area occupies about 3,500 hectares next to it. Until December, when the U.S. military returned some of the land to Japan, the training area was twice as big.
Exclusion of the U.S. training area is likely to prove to be a huge obstacle in Japan’s endeavor.
“Compared with Japan’s past bids, it will be extremely difficult,” said Masahito Yoshida, a professor of World Heritage studies at University of Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture.
Yoshida helped evaluate candidate sites in other countries as a former member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an advisory body that makes recommendations to the World Heritage Committee based on its on-site surveys.
One of the crucial points in evaluating whether a candidate site is worthy of World Natural Heritage recognition is the “integrity” of the nominated area.
“The IUCN may point out that the Northern Training Area should be included from a viewpoint of integrity,” he said. “In addition, the IUCN may ask the government how it intends to protect species living in the training area.”
In the course of past World Natural Heritage registrations, the government had to enlarge the scope of a national park or set up a buffer zone outside the nominated area following the IUCN evaluations.
Akimichi Matsunaga, assistant director for the World Natural Heritage of the Environment Ministry’s Environment Bureau of Natural Conservation, stressed that the government has an enviable track record of trying to conserve indigenous species in Yanbaru.
This was a reference to the government’s joint effort with U.S. forces to eradicate the mongoose, which is on the list of invasive alien species, for more than 10 years.
Mongooses were first brought to Okinawa in 1910 to prey on “habu” poisonous snakes and rats.
“The training area is not completely separated from the nominated zone,” Matsunaga said. “The government’s efforts may not be sufficient, but we would like to explain to the IUCN that we have managed the forest in an integrated manner with the training area as an adjacent zone.”
Still, conservationist Masayuki Gonda is skeptical about the government’s commitment, saying it has yet to do all that it can to preserve the forest and its inhabitants. He heads the World Wildlife Fund’s efforts to preserve the natural environment of the Nansei island chain off Kagoshima and Okinawa prefectures.
“Not even a buffer zone exists between the area that should come under strict conservation and the training area used by the U.S. military,” he said. “The wholeness of the local ecosystem is in tatters, making it impossible to conserve and manage it.”
A former U.S. base worker will admit to a charge of rape leading to the death of a Japanese woman last year, a new development in the case that rocked the tiny island prefecture and led to a surge in anti-American sentiment.
Kenneth Franklin Gadson, a former Marine who worked as a civilian at a Kadena Air Base cable and internet company, said through his attorneys that he killed Rina Shimabukuro, 20, while attempting to rape her, according to Naha District Court documents filed Friday.
“We do not dispute the charge of rape resulting in death,” the documents said, adding that Gadson admits to striking Shimabukuro on the head from behind while attempting to rape her. “As a result, the victim died … The defendant had no murderous intent, therefore we dispute the charge of murder.”
Gadson’s first pretrial conference is scheduled for March 10. The trial is expected to begin sometime around June.
The admission’s timing surprised some legal scholars, since prosecutors haven’t yet presented evidence in court. It was most likely an attempt at a lesser sentence by showing remorse, which is considered very important in the Japanese justice system.
“Generally speaking, if you do not admit anything while there is obvious evidence, the attitude is seen as atrocious, with no remorse; thereby, the sentence tends to be longer,” said Tetsumi Takara, a law professor at the University of the Ryukyus.
Takara said the death penalty cannot be discounted in this case, though it is rarely handed down in cases involving a single death.
“There is a possibility that he chose this route for a lesser sentence by giving a good impression to [the civilian] judges (similar to an American jury),” Takara said. “Having said that, it is still strange to admit the charge before trial.”
Gadson was charged with murder and rape resulting in death by Japanese prosecutors two months after Shimabukuro disappeared on April 28. He was also charged with the illegal disposal of a body.
Following interrogation, he took police to the wooded area where her remains were found. He confessed to the crime, police said, but his lawyers argued he was questioned while under the influence of sleeping pills after a suicide attempt.
The situation with US military bases in Okinawa continues to heat up. Recently new protests erupted following the refusal of the national government to relocate Futenma base and the handing back of 10,000 acres of US training grounds to Japan in exchange for the construction of six helipads nearby.
Okinawa’s Governor Takeshi Onaga seems to have lost patience with Tokyo officials after Japan’s Supreme Court dealt a significant a blow to the islanders’ efforts to rid themselves of US bases altogether by ruling in favor of the central government in its bid to relocate Futenma within the island.
Now Onaga plans to pay an official visit to the USA to explain to the Donald Trump administration the position of the prefecture’s residents, who have been protesting against the presence of the US bases for as long as they have been on the island.
However, bold and bouncy American soldiers always know what to do in difficult situations. They shot a video showing a number of Marines performing a brief version of the Koi Dance (koi being the Japanese word for “love”), the ending credit sequence for the phenomenally popular TV drama Nigehaji or We Married as a Job.
The footage was uploaded to the official Japanese-language Twitter account of the US Marine Corps on January 27 and got more than 14,000 reposts and over 18,000 likes by the time writing.
Hiroji Yamashiro, 64, had been leading protests against the construction of a new US marine corps installation, before he was arrested on October 17 last year. The island already boasts 32 such facilities.
Yamashiro and his supporters have claimed he is being detained for politically-motivated reasons and that the Japanese government is trying to silence him.
He is being held on suspicion of cutting a wire fence around a Marine Corps helipad construction site, interfering with a public officer’s duties, causing bodily harm, and of obstructing the construction of a Marine Corps air station.
US forces have been stationed on Okinawa since the end of WW2, and the base has long been a contentious issue in Japan. This latest series of protests are against the construction of new bases in Henoko and Takae, which locals say will damage the ecosystem.
Responding to a series of questions put to him by The Washington Post, Yamashiro wrote from his prison cell: “I can’t help but think this smells like a political judgment, not a judicial one, This is an unjust and illegal detention, and I don’t think it should be allowed to happen. It’s probably related to the current situation of the base issue in Okinawa.”
Under Japanese law, suspects can be held for a period of 23 days before they must be charged or released. Yamashiro has been held for three times that period and has also reportedly been prevented from seeing his family throughout his detention.
Yamashiro’s supporters have submitted a petition ( https://goo.gl/1oI8Uu ) calling for his release to Naha district court. It has reportedly been signed by 40,000 people and there have been a number of protests outside the building.
A number of public figures including documentary writer Satoshi Kamata, author Keiko Ochiai, and commentator Makoto Sataka have also called for his release.
The activist remains defiant, writing to The Washington Post: “I will not get discouraged, I will survive through this and work hard to speak for angry Okinawan people.”