Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Gov't handling of Okinawa's anti-base fight remains open to question

Late last year, the Japanese government railroaded through the construction of helipads for the U.S. military in the northern main island of Okinawa amid a local outcry over what is viewed as a further increase in burdens linked to the U.S. bases in the prefecture.
The move has left a group of residents in a small hamlet of Takae with bitter feelings as they had spent the past 10 years staging sit-ins to halt the construction of helipads near them, while prompting them as well as some experts to warn of the broader implications their case may have across the country.
“The local people’s will was neglected and the construction work was conducted with an iron grip,” 54-year-old Masatsugu Isa, who lives in Takae in the village of Higashi, said. “If what has happened in Takae becomes something common, it means Japan’s democracy is at stake.”
Construction of the helipads in a vast U.S. military training area near Takae has come under fire mainly due to concerns that they would be used by the Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, whose noise and records of accidents have been a subject of complaint in Okinawa that hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan.
But the Japanese government proceeded with the project to build a total of six helipads, two of which have already been completed and handed over to the U.S. military in 2015, for the sake of achieving the return of about 4,000 hectares of forest land inside the training ground to Japanese control.
The land return has been anticipated by Okinawans, but Okinawa Gov Takeshi Onaga has said many people in the prefecture felt it was unfair that it came in exchange for building new helipads. Adding to the anger was the central government’s seemingly “high-handed approach” in carrying forward the work to make the four remaining planned helipads.
Isa said it was emblematic that the central government began delivering equipment into the construction site just a day after the upper house election on July 10 last year, in which a then incumbent minister in charge of Okinawa issues lost her Diet seat to a newcomer opposed to the helipad construction and other base burdens.
“The antibase candidate won (the single Okinawa seat that was contested) by a margin of more than 100,000 votes, and yet, the government stance was, ‘We’re not going to listen to public will,’” the Higashi Village assembly member said, adding, “Doesn’t a person picked in an election represent the popular will?”
Soon afterwards, hundreds of riot police were mobilized from in and outside Okinawa to confront Takae residents and their supporters. Police officers removed people who sat on the road to hamper workers’ access to the site and frequently scuffled with protestors, resulting in injuries and arrests.
The government has argued that the police acted appropriately to prevent confusion and accidents, but Diet members from Okinawa constituencies criticized the act, saying human rights had been violated because of “excessive policing.”
Satoshi Kamata, a well-known journalist who visited Takae when tension was running high, said in Tokyo that police were focused on “keeping people away to ensure smooth progress of the work,” which led them to impose tough traffic controls that even affected ordinary passers-by. He also said he was startled to see dump trucks “convoyed” by police cars.
“In that situation, things like freedom of expression and freedom of passage had ended up on the back-burner,” Kamata said.
The government has also stirred controversy for using CH-47 Ground Self-Defense Force helicopters to airlift dump trucks for the construction work at one point, which was criticized by civic groups as a violation of the Self-Defense Forces Law because such activities are not included in a list of missions the troops should undertake.
It is not clear why the work was rushed so much, but a government source said Tokyo had hoped to give then U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy the credit for the “massive land return” upon her planned departure from the post ahead of the Jan. 20 inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump.
The land return was marked by a ceremony on Dec 22, in which both the Japanese and U.S. governments hailed their efforts toward alleviating Okinawa’s base burden. Onaga skipped the event to show that he is against the expected use of the Osprey aircraft for the new helipads.
The protest activities in Takae have since scaled down, but civic groups have kept a watchful eye over what they call an inappropriately long period of detention of an arrested activist in Okinawa, who was at the frontline of the antihelipad campaign and other antibase actions.
Hiroji Yamashiro, the head of the Okinawa Peace Action Center, was arrested in October on suspicion of cutting barbed wire near the helipad construction site and has faced additional charges for his alleged violation of laws seen during his protest activities.
“We’re seeing a crackdown against a person who was exercising his right to reject and to assert his opinions,” Kamata said, arguing that the government’s real intention appears to be barring the campaign leader from campaigning.
A political science professor at Seikei University said the government apparently steamrolled the helipad construction because it expected little pushback from the majority of Japanese people on the issue, with the struggle of Takae not known much outside Okinawa compared with another high-profile campaign to block the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within the prefecture.
“In fact, past results show that no matter how many terrible things are done against Okinawa, it never really destabilizes the central government,” Seiji Endo said.
But he warned that people in Japan’s mainland should show more interest in what happens in Okinawa because the central government could employ the same tactics they have found effective in the island prefecture toward grass-root movements in other parts of the country.
Masatsugu Isa’s 56-year-old wife, Ikuko, said Takae’s fight will continue with the aim of not allowing the U.S. military to actually use the new helipads that surround her community of about 150 residents.

“I don’t think the completion of the helipads means an end. As an eyewitness, I also have a lot to do to let other people know what the government had in fact done to build these helipads,” she said.


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