In contrast to several positive developments in part of the region with respect to democracy, rule of law and human rights, Japan is falling back. Despite consistent concerns from the opposition and civil society on the potential impacts on civil rights, such as freedom of expression, assembly and association, the Abe administration is stubbornly pushing for the adoption of the so-called anti-conspiracy bill without seeking consensus in the Diet. The draft legislation is widely criticized for its broad scope, which leaves worrying room for arbitrary use of the legislation against ordinary people.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, Joseph Cannataci, recently sent a letter to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to share his serious concerns on the bill’s possible negative impacts on human rights. Since the draft law’s definition of an “organized criminal group” is too broad, the U.N. rights expert raised specific concerns in his letter on the potential restrictions on non-governmental organizations, especially on those working in areas of national security.
The draft bill could jeopardize the work of many human rights and environmental NGOs if the authorities use it against NGOs critical of the government in order to surveil, or worse, criminalize their work. Yet among Japanese civil society, many feel that Okinawa, the prefecture encompassing the country’s southernmost islands, is particularly threatened, because environmental and rights groups are energetically fighting against the government’s project to build a new U.S. military base.
Critics fear that a planned new base in Henoko in the northern part of Okinawa Island will lead to environmental destruction and human rights violations as well as the exposure of the islands as a military target. Many Okinawans carry bitter memories of the Battle of Okinawa, during which a quarter of the local population was lost in the last phase of the Pacific War because the islands were forced to serve as the Japan’s final line of defense.
Since the local civil society facilitates protests against the Henoko base construction and demands the maximum possible access to information concerning the military’s activities in order to assess impacts on their rights, the work of Okinawan civil society groups can be arbitrary interpreted as threatening Japan’s national security.
Dozens to hundreds of protesters gather around the Henoko construction site on land and at sea on a daily basis. Among them is Hiroji Yamashiro, the chairperson of the Okinawa Peace Movement Center, who has been a longtime leader of non-violent protests. His personal commitments to peace, human rights and environmental protection for the islands have turned him into a symbol of the resistance in Okinawa. Yet at the same time, he has been targeted by the authorities because of this leadership role.
In late 2016, he was arrested on minor charges multiple times in two months. As requests for bail were repeatedly turned down, he was detained for five months under exceptionally restrictive conditions. He was not allowed to meet anyone except lawyers, supposedly due to “the risk of destruction of evidence.” His wife finally managed to see him in detention for the first time after four and a half months, shortly before his release in March.
The retroactive arrests and prolonged detention were condemned by civil society as arbitrary measures to spread a chilling effect and discourage the protest movement. However, many say that the Yamashiro’s case is just the tip of the iceberg.
Under the Abe administration, media freedom has been struggling. Japan ranks 72nd for press freedom among 180 countries, the lowest for a Group of Seven country, representing a dramatic drop from 11th in 2010 at the time of the previous government led by the Democratic Party of Japan. Journalists critically covering the Okinawan issues are often portrayed as “anti-Japan” by influential figures, leading to undermining of the country’s media freedom. Two local newspapers, the Ryukyu Shimpo and the Okinawa Times, are the most targeted among the Okinawan media. Due to their critical coverage of the Japanese government’s policies on U.S. military facilities, the newspapers and their reporters are constantly attacked by conservative lawmakers and their allies.
One of the notorious examples is the so-called Hyakuta incident. Naoki Hyakuta, a best-selling writer and close friend of Abe, was invited to a study session in June 2015 organized by junior politicians in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The attendees included then-Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato and Koichi Hagiuda, a special adviser to Abe at that time. Though the study session was to discuss the revision of the Constitution, the participants went further to have a heated debate on how to “punish” media outlets critical of the government. The novelist attacked the two Okinawan newspapers by saying, “The two Okinawan newspapers must be destroyed. I believe if some of the islands in Okinawa [Prefecture] were to be invaded by China, although such a thing should not happen, they will awake from their sleep.” No lawmaker present at the session questioned the remark; many endorsed it. Although this incident sparked outrage within and outside Okinawa, the regression of freedom of expression did not stop.
Last week, another United Nations human rights expert released a report on Japan, sending a serious alert about the country’s bitter reality when it comes to freedom of expression. While the special rapporteur on the freedom of expression, David Kaye, refrained from touching on the draft “anti-conspiracy” bill, he “identified significant worrying signals” that “undermine Japan’s democratic foundations.” In addition to his concerns on the lack of political will to ensure media independence and access to information, Kaye specifically pointed out the situation in Okinawa, saying he found “the availability of space for dissent and access to information for those throughout Japan about the situation there” is restricted. The Japanese government bluntly rejected the U.N. rights expert’s views.
Whenever questions are raised on the situation of freedom of expression, the Abe administration repeats the claim like a broken record that Japan’s Constitution guarantees human rights. However, objective observations by human rights experts are shedding light on the different sides of the country. In describing his detention after being released, Yamashiro revealed the country’s bitter reality: “I was detained for such a long time baselessly. I believe that was intended to intimidate Okinawans.”
In any democratic country, such a high price should not have to be paid for dissent. Pressures within and outside the country are intensifying for the Abe government to make substantial steps to create a society where everyone can embrace the right to freedom of expression without fearing any consequences.
In January this year, the U.S. Navy’s former aircraft parking apron of Kadena Air Base was relocated in accordance with the 1996 Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO) agreement to reduce noise in neighboring residential areas. However, on June 1, a representative from Kadena Air Base expressed that the base will continue to utilize the former parking apron in Kadena Town, Okinawa during an interview with Ryukyu Shimpo. The representative’s understanding was that this “does not violate” the agreement.
The Okinawa Prefectural Government (OPG) and Kadena Town have been protesting the use of the former parking apron. Following a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft flying in from South Korea’s Osan Air Base on May 31, the prefecture and town claim that the use of the parking apron is a violation of the SACO agreement; the U.S. military denies this. The U.S. military is seemingly not holding up their end of the bargain. The local government has been strongly opposing this since it is counteractive to “reducing (their) burden.”
On June 1, a representative from Kedena Air Base responded to Ryukyu Shimpo’s interview. The representative denied violating the agreement and said, “The temporary use of the north aircraft parking apron (Navy’s former aircraft parking apron) is in line with the agreement made by both the Japanese and U.S. governments.” On May 31, the Japanese government requested that the U.S. Air Force carry out “operations that would take the noise reduction initiative from the SACO Final Report into account.”
A representative from the Kadena Air Base commented, “[We’ll] only use the north aircraft parking apron only when there is no other choice.” The representative then commented, “[We] have operational demands for Kadena Air Base.” The representative expressed that Kadena Air Base intends to continue to use the former parking apron.
Following a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft using the former parking apron on May 31, OPG official Takekuni Ikeda called Colonel Paul Oldham, Commander of the 18th Mission Support Group, Kadena Air Base over the phone and requested for the base to stop using the parking apron. It was pointed out that the use of the parking apron “clearly goes against the intent of the SACO agreement.” Commander Oldham argued otherwise and said, “It does not violate the SACO agreement.”
Even after the relocation in January, transient aircrafts (KC-135 Stratotanker and C-146A Wolfhound) have flown in and have temporarily landed at the former parking apron. People from Kadena Town are upset, claiming that the relocation effort was pointless.
According to a representative from the Okinawa Defense Bureau, the U-2 reconnaissance aircrafts will continue to use the former parking apron for about a month.
Hundreds of people took to the streets of Tokyo to pay tribute to the memory of a young Japanese woman killed by a US marine a year ago and to protest the relocation of the US base in Okinawa. A separate rally was held in Okinawa prefecture.
The demonstrators in Tokyo marched through the streets holding banners including ones reading, “No base in Okinawa!” The father of the murdered woman also issued a message calling for the removal of the US military bases from the island prefecture, local media report.
“Those incidents occur because Okinawa hosts US military bases. I want the bases to be removed without further delay, which is the wish of many Okinawa residents as well,” the man said in his statement.
“I have nothing to say to the defendant. We, the bereaved family, can never forgive him. We tolerate or trust no excuses from him,” he added. At the same time, he expressed his gratitude to all those people who expressed their support and sympathy to his family.
“Our sorrow for losing our daughter will never disappear, but our hearts will always be with her and we will continue to pray for the repose of her soul,” he said.
On April 28, 2016, the 20-year-old woman, Rina Shimabukuro, was raped and murdered by a 32-year-old civil contractor and former US Marine Kenneth Franklin Gadson, who goes by his Japanese wife’s family name of Shinzato. He admitted that he had strangled and stabbed his victim.
The incident provoked a wave of outrage in Japan. In June 2016, at least 50,000 people protested against heavy US military presence in Okinawa following the murder. Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga and some officials from opposition parties also took part in the rally at the time.
Facing public outcry, the US military has introduced curfews, movement restrictions and an alcohol ban off base, lifted 11 days after it was imposed.
In the meantime, another rally was held in the Henoko district of the city of Nago located in the Okinawa prefecture. Some 3,000 people took part in that demonstration, according to the local media.
The protesters, who came to express their discontent with the relocation of the US Futenma air base to the Henoko district, also began their rally with a minute of silence in the memory of the murdered woman.
The protesters gathered in front of Camp Schwab, the US military base located in Henoko. The demonstration was attended by the Nago city mayor.
In the meantime, the construction of the new US military base in Henoko took another step forward despite strong opposition from local residents. On April 25, cranes started dropping nets containing crushed rock along the shore north of Camp Schwab.
The rocks will likely serve as the foundation of a seawall built along the outer perimeter of the planned runway site, according to The Asahi Shimbun newspaper. Full-fledged landfill work inside the sea walls is set to take place in the first half of next year.
Katsuhiro Yoshida, a senior Okinawa prefectural official, who particularly deals with issues concerning the US bases in the area, said that the move “ignored the local will” and is “authoritarian,” adding that the local residents simply cannot accept it.
Okinawa hosts about 75 percent of all US military installations in Japan, and is an important geopolitical outpost for Washington allowing to project power in the region that neighbors China and Southeast Asia.
From Hawaii to Okinawa, Pacific islands seem relegated to serve as neverland vacation getaways — as well as outposts for US military empire.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently earned a news cycle’s worth of negative press after an interview in which he seemed to dismiss the entire state of Hawaii, where a federal judge earlier this year blocked the Trump administration’s ban on refugees and on travelers from six Muslim-majority countries.
“I really am amazed,” Sessions complained, “that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the president of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and constitutional power.”
Sessions’ comments were widely seen as ignorant and arrogant, dismissing U.S. federal district judge Derrick Watson and the “island in the Pacific” on which he sits. Hawaii’s Senators Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz were quick to fire back on Twitter, with Schatz reminding Sessions that that island is called Oahu, and it happens to be part of a U.S. state.
The dustup came one day after South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham made comments which received far less attention. Speaking in a Today Show interview, Graham said that a war on the Korean peninsula would be “bad for China, bad for Japan, bad for South Korea, it’d be the end of North Korea,” but quickly added, “what it would not do is hit America.”
It was as if Graham was saying: Relax! We’re only talking about destruction on a peninsula in the Pacific.
Sessions and Graham’s remarks might have been more shocking if they weren’t preceded by the U.S. president’s own steady stream of outrageous comments — including his latest ally-enraging (and inaccurate) suggestion that Korea was once part of China, and appearing not to know the difference between three generations of North Korea’s Kim dynasty. In Washington, the intellectual and moral bar has been set so low, it’s now in danger of being run over by rats and lemmings.
Truth be told, Sessions, Graham, and Trump hardly hold a monopoly on disrespect and disconnect to the Asia-Pacific. Even those who were quick to blast Sessions’ remarks operate on their own ingrained assumptions about the region.
By their nature, Pacific islands are geographically smaller and distant from continents and have long been seen through the lens of conceit. (Henry Kissinger was famously quoted saying of the Marshall Islands, where the U.S. conducted nuclear testing from 1946 to 1958, “There are only 90,000 people out there. Who gives a damn?”)
It’s why, in part, places like Hawaii, Guam, the Marshall Islands, and Okinawa have been relegated to serve as neverland vacation getaways as well as outposts for our military empire — places to store, stage, test, and train for tomorrow’s wars.
Sessions’ dismissive island in the Pacific comment and Graham’s cavalier admission that a new Korean war would be a disaster for “them” but not “us” (sucks to be you!) cut to the heart of questions of sovereignty and servitude — and why there is so little recognition of the degree to which islands in the Pacific are commodified and militarized.
And while Jeff Sessions surely knows that Hawaii has been a U.S. state since 1959, he and others would do well to remember that the formerly independent Kingdom of Hawaii was, in fact, illegally overthrown by the United States in 1893 — and that Hawaiian legal scholars and others still dispute the validity of the U.S. annexation of Hawaii. The subsequent road to statehood and attendant impacts to Hawaiian culture and society, land rights, and the environment stand out as a glaring example of what can happen to an island in the Pacificwhen it catches the eye of a great power.
On the other side of the date line, the U.S. territory of Guam is highly valued by the U.S. military as its “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in the Western Pacific, anchored strategically near East Asia. But most Americans would struggle to find it on a map. Guam has one of the highest military enlistment rates in the U.S. but remains divided over its political status.
There’s an effort underway to hold a plebiscite that would address the island’s political status as an “unincorporated territory.” A vote on whether Guam should pursue statehood (like Hawaii), forge a free association with the U.S. (like Micronesia’s three COFA nations), or seek full independence would be a significant step toward ending its colonial status and move toward self-governance.
Like Guam and Hawaii, the Republic of the Marshall Islands knows all too well what it means to be an island in the Pacific. The impact of the 67 nuclear weapons tests conducted by the U.S. in the northern atolls (most famously on Bikini) is measured not just in contaminated islands and devastating cancer rates, but in the profound changes to Marshallese culture and society. Entire communities were moved around like furniture to accommodate U.S. weapons tests.
Often overlooked is the Marshall Islands’ Kwajalein atoll, home to the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, which is so valued by the U.S. that it has negotiated a lease that runs through 2066 (with an option to extend to 2086). Much of the base’s unskilled labor force is made up of Marshallese who live in impoverished, crowded conditions, often lacking the most basic services and utilities, on a tiny sliver of sand called Ebeye island a short boat ride away from America’s sophisticated Death Star in the Pacific.
The widely accepted premise that islands in the Pacific make great military bases extends to southern Japan’s Okinawa prefecture, once the independent Ryukyu Kingdom until it was absorbed by Japan in the 1880s. After the horrific battle of Okinawa at the end of World War II, the U.S. claimed Okinawa as its own — the spoils of war — and occupied it outright until its reversion to Japan in 1972.
Today Okinawa is fractured as its people continue to protest around the clock against the lopsided U.S. military presence there. At least 70 percent of all U.S. bases and half of U.S. troops in Japan are crowded on Okinawa into less than 1 percent of Japanese territory, with new U.S. installations being forcibly built under the heavy fists of Tokyo and Washington.
This denial of how the U.S. disrespects islands extends beyond the Pacific. It’s why Diego Garcia, where the U.S. and British expelled an entire indigenous population to build a U.S. military base, is just an island in the Indian Ocean. It’s why Puerto Rico and Cuba are just islands in the Caribbean.
When geographically and politically dominant nation-states invade, conquer, annex, or otherwise absorb smaller, distant islands, entire populations are displaced, cultures are appropriated or extinguished, and colonization and militarization are normalized.
When Jeff Sessions made his smug comment about an island in the Pacific, he was lambasted for disrespecting Hawaii. But a more subtle, far more pervasive kind of disrespect forms the basis of a narrative so widespread it transcends political boundaries, linking those on the right with those on the left in a way that never seems to make the news.
Japan’s Defense Ministry plans to start a new phase of works to relocate a US military base within the southern prefecture of Okinawa despite local opposition.
Ministry sources say that if weather permits, the Okinawa bureau will start constructing seawalls on Tuesday to surround an area where an alternative facility for the US Marine Corps Futenma Air Station will be built.
The bureau began reclamation works in February and has installed silt fences to stop muddy water from spilling.
Workers will sink stones into the sea, and fill the encircled area with soil and sand.
The seawall construction marks the start of full-scale reclamation works. The walls are expected to make it difficult to return the area to its original state.
Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga has attempted to stop the relocation plan many times.
Onaga argues that the defense bureau has not obtained permission from the prefecture to destroy seabed rocks to install the fences.
He indicated that that he may file a lawsuit to seek a court order to stop the construction.
The US and Japanese governments agreed to relocate the air station from a densely populated area in Ginowan City to a coastal area of Nago City.
On March 25, the “prefectural people’s rally calling for immediate cancellation of unlawful land reclamation work and abandonment of the plan to build a new base in Henoko”, organized by the All Okinawa Coalition to Prevent Construction of a New Base in Henoko, was held in front of the gate to the U.S. military’s Camp Schwab. According to organizer estimates, more than 3,500 participants joined the rally.
Governor Takeshi Onaga attended the rally and announced, “with strength, I will absolutely revoke” the approval to reclaim land off the shore of Henoko, which is needed build the new base. It was the first time Governor Onaga clearly stated his intention to revoke the land reclamation approval. It was also the first time the governor attended a citizens’ rally in Henoko since taking office.
A prominent leader of the anti-base movement in Okinawa was released on bail Saturday after spending five months in jail over minor offenses.
The Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court ordered Hiroji Yamashiro, 64, head of the Okinawa Peace Action Center, released on bail, upholding the Naha District Court’s decision on Friday. Prosecutors had appealed the district court ruling.
Yamashiro was arrested in October for allegedly cutting barbed wire at a U.S. military training area in Higashi, Okinawa. He has also led groups opposed to the relocation plan for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma further south in Ginowan. Okinawa hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan.
At his first hearing at the district court Friday, Yamashiro admitted to the charge of destroying property by cutting barbed wire. But he pleaded not guilty to two other charges: the forcible obstruction of a business and assault.
Yamashiro and other activists are accused of piling some 1,480 concrete blocks in front of the gate to Camp Schwab in Nago in January 2016 in a bid to prevent the delivery of equipment and materials needed for the relocation project there.
He is also suspected of injuring a local defense bureau official by grabbing his shoulder and shaking him last August near the U.S. military training area in Higashi.
The high-profile detention prompted human rights groups including Amnesty International Japan to call for Yamashiro’s immediate release.
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.