A Japanese human rights group Friday called for the immediate release of an activist detained for nearly five months in connection with his opposition to U.S. bases in Okinawa Prefecture.
Akira Maeda of the Japanese Workers’ Committee for Human Rights, slammed the government for continuing to detain Hiroji Yamashiro, head of the Okinawa Peace Action Center, during a session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.
“Mr. Hiroji Yamashiro . . . has been detained for 140 days on relatively minor charges, triggering accusations that the Japanese government is trying to silence him,” he said. “Yamashiro’s continued incarceration contravenes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
Yamashiro, 64, has led groups objecting to the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Air Station Futenma within the prefecture.
He was arrested in October on suspicion of cutting barbed wire near a U.S. military helipad construction site in Higashi, in northern Okinawa. He has also been charged with injuring a Defense Ministry official and obstructing relocation work at another U.S. Marine base in Nago.
Amnesty International Japan has also called for Yamashiro’s immediate release, saying he does not meet the criteria for being detained as the chances of him destroying evidence concerning his alleged crimes are very low.
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.
Despite strong local opposition, the Japanese authorities began offshore construction work aimed at relocating a US Marine Corps base on the island of Okinawa.
The US Marine Corps’ Air Station Futenma is being moved from densely populated Ginowan to a less populated location in eastern Okinawa – the Henoko coastal area of Nago. Last week, US Defense Secretary James Mattis and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held talks in Tokyo and agreed to go ahead with the plan.
The offshore construction work, which started on the 6th of February, will see over 200 concrete blocks dumped in the sea to create a screen, preventing debris and sediment generated from coastal revetment work from damaging the environment.
Tokyo will also make sure that an undersea survey in the area is carried out, using the same vessels which earlier delivered the blocks to the site, Kyodo news agency reported.
“Based on relevant law, the government will pay as much consideration as possible to the natural environment and the livelihoods of local people as we move forward with work to relocate (the base to) Henoko,” Yoshide Suga, Japanese chief cabinet secretary, said.
Around 100 people gathered outside Camp Schwab, another US base near the construction site, to protest the relocation again on Monday.
The demonstrators held banners reading “No to new Henoko base” and “Independence from colonialism,” AP reported.
Many residents, including Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga, object to the heavy US military presence on the island, saying that the Futenma base should be removed, not just relocated.
They cite jet crashes related to the US bases and sexual assaults linked to US military personnel as major reasons for concern.
Large-scale protests against the US bases, which gather thousands of people, are staged regularly on the island.
Onaga is now expected to refuse the renewal of a permit for moving coral reefs in the construction area, which expires in March, in order to stall the Futenma base relocation, Kyodo said.
The Okinawa governor visited Washington last week, reiterating his strong stance against the US bases on the island.
“US military bases occupy 6 percent of the whole of Japan and 70 percent of those US military bases are in places where the population density is about the same as Tokyo. I don’t like it anymore…,” Onaga said.
The Futenma base relocation began in October 2015, but was suspended due to resistance from the Okinawa authorities and population.
The work was resumed by the government on December 27 after the Supreme Court rejected an injunction order earlier issued by the Okinawa governor.
“This is a country ruled by law, and we feel that both the state and Okinawa Prefecture will cooperate and act sincerely in continuing with the reclamation work, in line with the Supreme Court ruling,” Cabinet Secretary Suga said.
Tokyo believes that the relocation of the base is “the only solution” to move it away from the densely populated area, while not undermining the Japan-US security alliance.
On Thursday some 22,000 people living near Kadena Air Base were collectively awarded $265.9 million in an aircraft-noise settlement. This is the largest reward levied in a noise case against the US military in Japanese history, with each plaintiff to receive roughly $12,000.
The Japanese court dismissed the residents’ demand to scale back the US military presence, however, stating that it is essential to regional security, but the judge did criticize the government for not addressing the noise issue.
Yoshinori Yamada, a 76-year-old plaintiff said after the verdict, “The court found that the noise was harmful but it cannot stop it…I am outraged.”
The residents will appeal the military presence aspect of the case, an end result that they desired, according to reports, over monetary compensation. The Japanese government could appeal to a higher court to lower the award, as was done in a December 2016 noise complaint case at Atsugi Naval Air Facility. Similar suits were filed in 1982 and 2000.
This most recent case was filed in 2011, with some of the complaintants dying in the midst of litigation, and others blocked due to their Filipino national origin.
Chief Judge Tetsuya Fujikura said in the ruling, “While the benefits are enjoyed equally by the entire nation, the operations of the military cause various damages, inflicting a heavy toll on local residents…It is a grave unfairness that cannot be overlooked,” according to Stars and Stripes.
Jiji Press quoted the judge saying that the issue has “caused mental pain, disturbance to sleep and an increase in the risk of negative health effects from developing high blood pressure.”
Multimillion-dollar settlements have been paid out for noise complaints by the Japanese government just in the last year, although noise has been an issue in Okinawa since the US moved in after World War II. A case in November 2016 involving Marine Corps Air Station Futenma saw $22.6 million paid to some 3,400 residents. Altogether the government has paid over $90 million in noise settlements since the 1990s.
An American charged with raping and murdering an Okinawa woman blamed the victim and thought he would get away with the attack because of Japan’s culture of shame, according to a report.
The suspect, Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, “didn’t fear being caught because of Japan’s low rate of reporting sexual assaults … due to cultural and social stigma,” according to a Stars and Stripes article published on Feb. 14.
The U.S. military newspaper quoted lawyers for Shinzato, 33, a former U.S. Marine who was a civilian worker at the U.S. Kadena Air Base in Okinawa Prefecture.
Okinawa prefectural police initially arrested Shinzato in May last year on suspicion of abandoning the body of the 20-year-old woman who resided in Uruma in the prefecture. He was later arrested and indicted on charges of rape and murder.
“I intended to hit her with the stick and make her lose consciousness, then put her in the suitcase, take her to a hotel and then rape her,” the defense team quoted Shinzato as saying in the article.
Police suspect he ambushed the woman while she was walking for exercise in Uruma on the night of April 28. They believe Shinzato and the woman had never met before.
One of the lawyers told Stars and Stripes that the suspect believes “it was her fault for having been there at the time.”
The lawyer told The Asahi Shimbun on Feb. 15, “My client is not expressing any remorse over the incident.”
The defense team plans to have the suspect undergo a psychiatric assessment before his trial starts around June.
According to the lawyer, a transcript of the defense team’s interview with Shinzato was released to Stars and Stripes because he wanted to tell his story only to fellow Americans.
On a Japanese island famous for long life expectancies, elderly women are at the forefront of the continuing protest movement against U.S military installations.
For an entire year, 60-year-old Kumiko Onaga slept in a tent across the street from a U.S. military base on Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost island. In the middle of the night, when trucks carrying construction material approached at the entrance gate of the base, she jumped out of her sleeping bag and tried to block the vehicles. Then, each morning, she drove home, showered and went to work as one of her town’s few women city council members.
“People know me as ‘the sleeping bag councilwoman,’” Onaga says with a smile, adding that more people know her by her nickname than her real name.
Onaga and others on Okinawa have long opposed the relocation of the contentious Futenma Marine Corps base to the remote fishing village of Henoko on the northern part of the island. Part of the plan involves the construction of military runways in the coral-filled coastal waters next to the base.
“We were forced to accept these bases,” says Kyoko Matayoshi, 66, who lives just over a mile from the Futenma base. She and many local residents say their biggest concerns are noise, pollution and safety.
In 1995, the rape of a 12-year-old Japanese girl on the island by U.S servicemen prompted huge protests and ultimately led to the decision to move the Futenma base from a densely populated area to northern Okinawa. Though these incidents are rare, a string of rapes by U.S. servicemen stationed on Okinawa has rattled nerves over the years. Last year, a former U.S. Marine was arrested for the gruesome murder of a 20-year-old Okinawan woman. This sparked a fresh wave of demonstrations against the American military presence on the island.
Matayoshi and others are part of a women’s group that protests the Futenma base. “When we started 20 years ago, we never had the intention to do this movement for such a long time,” she says. “It’s not even activism, we’re just doing this to survive.”
Matayoshi says instead of relocating the base within Okinawa, the Japanese government should move it to the mainland. Former Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama agreed to this plan several years ago, but backtracked on his promise in 2010 and later resigned.
An unfair burden
“In Okinawa, we have been double-colonized and dominated,” says Matayoshi. Before Japan annexed the island in the late 1800s, Okinawa flourished as the independent Ryukyu Kingdom, trading with nearby nations. During World War II, the Japanese military government used the island as a bloody battlefield, and tens of thousands of Okinawan civilians died. After the war, the island came under U.S. control.
Okinawan women have a long history of resistance, and many of them organized grassroots rallies when their families’ land was turned into U.S. military property. “Those women who survived the war and post-war period became our role models and our teachers,” Matayoshi says.
Under a treaty that dates back to the end of World War II, U.S. forces defend Japan from rival nations, such as North Korea and China. Now, about 27,000 troops are stationed on the island, and it’s considered a strategic defense location in the Asia Pacific region.
While Okinawa is home to roughly 70 percent of the U.S. military bases in Japan, it has less than one percent of the nation’s landmass, angering many Okinawans who say that’s an unfair burden.
Women at the Frontlines
Etsuko Urashima, 68, lives near the village of Henoko, where the Japanese government is preparing to construct military runways. The soft-spoken writer has become one of the most well-known organizers of the protest movement.
In 2011, Urashima co-founded a women’s group to support the city’s anti-base mayor. “The anti-base people with official leadership positions are mostly men, but the main force of this movement is women,” she says. “When women are at the frontlines, it’s said those movements are successful.”
“If we had not been doing these protests, the base in Henoko would have been built a long time ago,” Urashima says. One major concern, she says, is that the proposed plan to build aircraft runways on the environmentally fragile coastal waters will damage the area forever.
Construction of the new runways started a few years ago, but stalled last year after significant local opposition and a lawsuit filed by Okinawa’s governor against the plan. It was a small victory for many of the protesters, until Japan’s Supreme Court overturned the lawsuit in December 2016, and work resumed in February.
Protecting Future Generations
“I’d never taken part in any civil movement before,” says Onaga, the “sleeping bag councilwoman.”
“I was even scared to just do a sit-in, because I wasn’t used to it.” At demonstrations outside military bases, Japanese riot police gather and physically carry protesters out of the area.
“In one late-night protest, the riot police formed a human fence to block us as construction material was transported into the military base,” she says. “The police hit me in the back and broke my rib. It took a month and a half to heal, and it was very scary and painful.”
Onaga says women are a big part of the protest movement because they want to protect future generations. “We’re a tiny island, and the bonds are strong here,” she says. “I think Okinawan women feel that they all collectively share the responsibility of raising our children.”
Her views have also brought unwanted attention from right-wing groups in Okinawa. “I get a lot of abuse and threats online,” Onaga says. “The very first time they uploaded something about me, I did get scared, but I wasn’t going to let it stop me from protesting.”
Resistance in the Forest
Protesters have also set up tents in Okinawa’s northern Yanbaru forest, where the U.S. military is constructing six helicopter landing pads. Twice a week, crowds gather to demonstrate, while riot police closely guard the area and film protesters with camcorders.
Eiko Ginoza, 69, often protests with an 86-year-old woman who survived the Battle of Okinawa.
Ginoza vividly remembers when a U.S. military fighter jet crash-landed into an elementary school in her town in 1959, killing 11 students and six locals. Now a grandmother of seven, she says, “My grandchildren are scared whenever they see an aircraft because they fly really low.”
At a morning rally, Ginoza and other protesters chant slogans. As a truck pummels down the two-lane road carrying construction materials for the helipad, they surround the vehicle and try to block it. The truck continues on and enters the construction site.
“We are nonviolent, and we don’t want to harm people,” she says. “We just stand in front of the trucks, or we lay down under the trucks.”
She and the other elderly women protesters say they won’t give up their fight. “We only have one chance to live, so we’ll continuously say no to the base,” Ginoza says.
Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga expressed hope Thursday that the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump will adopt a new policy toward U.S. military bases in Japan’s southernmost prefecture.
Referring to drastic changes Trump has made since taking office on Jan. 20, Onaga said in a speech in Washington he hopes the new president will take U.S. policy on bases, including the controversial relocation of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, in “a better direction.”
The bilateral policy concerning Okinawa has remained constant under previous Japanese and U.S. governments, leaving the island prefecture “full of bases,” Onaga told the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University.
“I don’t think it will get any worse than today,” he said.
“In that sense, I am forecasting some changes with President Trump.
“I hope he will lead us into a different direction.”
Onaga said he held talks with Republican and Democratic members of Congress about local opposition to the Japan-U.S. plan to move Futenma from a crowded residential area of Ginowan to the less populated Henoko coastal area of Nago.
“It’s not ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ We don’t want (a new U.S. base) anymore,” the governor said, citing the fact Okinawa accounts for a mere 0.6 percent of the land of Japan but is home to more than 70 percent of all U.S. military facilities in the country.
Onaga said he briefly met and spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when they happened to be at the same breakfast meeting Thursday at a Washington hotel.
They did not discuss the Futenma issue, however.
Onaga has demanded the Futenma base be relocated outside Okinawa. During the five-day visit to Washington through Saturday, he aims to tell the Trump administration that many residents of Okinawa are opposed to the relocation plan as they want to reduce the burden on the prefecture from hosting the bulk of U.S. forces in Japan.
The relocation is a key part of a broader bilateral agreement to reorganize the U.S. military presence in Japan.
The Japanese government maintains that relocating Futenma to Henoko is the “only solution” for removing the dangers posed by the air station without undermining the deterrence of the Japan-U.S. alliance amid regional tensions fueled by China’s assertive territorial claims at sea and North Korea’s weapons program.
In 2004, a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter crashed at Okinawa International University, which is adjacent to the base.
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.