Is Toshiyuki Obora a threat to society? The Japanese state certainly seems to think so. The police arrested the 47-year-old elementary school worker and held him in detention for 75 days.
“I thought it would never end,” says Obora.
After confiscating his computer and rifling through his personal belongings, the police called his workplace, from where he was forced to take 10 months leave and a 60 percent pay cut. Prosecutors demanded a six-month prison term.
When a district court threw the charge out, the state spent thousands of hours and millions of yen challenging the decision and fighting it in the Tokyo High Court.
Few would feel much sympathy for a teacher embezzling funds or, heaven forbid, molesting children in his care, but Obora was guilty of distributing scraps of printed paper to grown adults suggesting they “think deeply” about Japan’s decision to support a costly and illegal war.
The flier, to members of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and their families, asked rhetorically: “Would George Bush or Koizumi Junichiro go to fight a war in Iraq?”
It is perhaps the oldest form of modern political activity — dating back to 17th century pamphleteering, but the High Court decided last December that the danger it posed to SDF members required a conviction for trespassing and a fine of 100,000 yen.
Obora and his two co-defendants, Nobuhiro Onishi and Sachimi Takada, were stunned.
“This is like delivering the final blow to Japan’s democracy,” said Takada.
An overreaction perhaps? “This case is crucial,” says Professor Lawrence Repeta, a faculty member of Omiya Law School, who calls fliers the “most traditional means of free expression.”
“The government must carry a very heavy burden to justify a restriction on people expressing their opinions on an important matter of public policy in this fashion. And in my view they have shown nothing at all to justify their actions.”
Obora’s team of antiwar activists, Tachikawa Jieitai Kanshi Tento Mura (Tachikawa SDF monitoring tent village) has campaigned peacefully in the western Tokyo area for quarter of a century.
By the time they were raided on Feb. 27, 2004, it was one of the oldest protest groups in Tokyo and had shrunk to seven activists.
So on Jan. 17, 2004, when Obora and his colleagues went to the Tachikawa SDF housing complex hoping their fliers would be noticed among piles of junk advertising, it was business as usual.
“We had been doing this since the previous autumn,” says Obora. “And we had been distributing newspapers outside bases and sending direct mail since the early 1970s.”
They believed, however, that among the hundreds of families in the complex, some were likely to oppose Japan’s first dispatch of troops to a war zone since the Second World War.
The activists walked past a small sign banning unauthorized people from entering the complex, just as dozens of other people hawking pizzas, family restaurants and membership in religious organizations did every week.
On Feb. 22, two of the activists paid another visit, the last before they were arrested for trespassing at the end of that month.
Their arrest was troubling enough, but what followed was “outrageous,” says Repeta.
“The prosecutors said they had to hold these people for 75 days because they needed more information, but the activists admitted what they did.”
So why were they being held? Intimidation, he says.
“For the authorities to lock up harmless people like this for such a lengthy period is a clear violation of the principles of Japan’s Constitution and of human rights treaties Japan has entered. This violates any basic standard of due process.”
The prosecution argued that this was a straightforward case of criminal trespass, but Obora says comments by police during his interrogation make it clear that the arrests were political.
“One of the police officers said ‘it would be very interesting to survey to what extent the number of antiwar postings to SDF complexes has decreased compared to before your arrest.’ That and other comments by prosecutors convince me that the political intent was to destroy the antiwar movement.”
In the end, Hachioji district Judge Kenichi Hasegawa was far from convinced by the prosecutor’s case, calling the arrest “questionable” and pointedly referring to Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression.
But as in so many cases in a country that convicts over 99 percent of defendants in criminal cases, the higher the judiciary, the more conservative the ruling.
Tokyo High Court presiding judge Taketaka Nakagawa rejected the argument that the three were exercising their constitutional right to express a point of view, saying such a right did not mean they could “enter (the facility) against the manager’s will.”
The judge disagreed with Hasegawa’s view that (a) the no-trespass sign was “inconspicuous” and (b) that any damage caused by the defendants was “extremely minor,” studiously refusing to acknowledge the wider implications of the case.
Thus, the apartment building manager’s right was, in Repeta’s words, considered “absolute: the three-page opinion issued by the Tokyo High Court doesn’t even bother to balance the constitutional right of free speech against the building owner’s property rights.”
He adds: “It’s hard to imagine that an appellate court in any sophisticated democratic country would simply convict these people without such an analysis.”
The arrest and conviction of the Tachikawa Three is part of a wider crackdown against the pacifist movement in Japan — directed by the public security police — as the government moves to revise Article 9 of the constitution.
One week after the original case against the Tachikawa protesters was thrown out, for instance, Yousei Arakawa, head priest at Choeiji Buddhist Temple in Tokyo, was detained for a remarkably similar “offense” under the direction of the same public security official.
Arakawa was distributing antiwar leaflets produced by the Japan Communist Party in an apartment complex in Katsushikaku, northeast Tokyo, when a man on the third floor challenged him.
“He said ‘Are you the asshole that has been putting that stuff in my door,’ ” says Arakawa.
“So I said if it is causing you trouble I won’t do it again, but he called the police.”
Two squad cars and two officers on bicycles arrived within minutes to detain a 58-year-old priest who was eager to explain his activities.
“Somebody had decided this was to be treated as a serious crime, like murder or robbery,” says Arakawa who believes he was set up.
“The man who challenged me used police terms like ‘PC’ (patrol car) when he was on the phone.”
He was brought to Kameari Police Station, where he said that he had been campaigning for 10 years and was supporter but not a member of the JCP. Two hours placed him under official arrest.
“I had no idea you could be arrested for such a thing,” says Arakawa, who was held for 23 days.
Arakawa is preparing for his eight appearance in the Tokyo District Court where his lawyer, Ousuke Nakamura intends to challenge the legality of the police arrest.
“For them, people like Mr. Arakawa who distribute information warning people what will happen if they change the constitution are like a cancer. It grows unless you cut it out.”
Says Arakawa: “Today it is me. Who will it be tomorrow?”