Prisoners of conscience, communists, antiwar activists, martyrs for Japan’s tottering pacifist Constitution: Toshiyuki Obora, Nobuhiro Onishi and Sachimi Takada have been called many things since February 2004, and worse besides.

In the world of rightwing bloggers, they represent the dying strains of a 60-year-old refrain: No matter how the world changes, Japan must stay out of international conflict and remain true to a yellowing document written under U.S. Occupation in 1947.

For others, including supporters who contributed ¥3-4 million to their legal fees, they are the stubborn keepers of the antiwar flame — the personification of pacifist ideals in the face of huge odds.

This epic struggle received scant attention, however, in a Supreme Court ruling last month that convicted the three of trespassing in a Tachikawa Self-Defense Force housing compound, says Obora.

“We didn’t expect much from the verdict, but we thought the judge would at least deal with the implications of the case. After all, the legal ramifications of criminalizing the distribution of leaflets are so enormous.”

On April 11, Justice Isao Imai ended the four-year legal battle between the state and the activists when he ruled that they broke the law by putting antiwar fliers in the postboxes of SDF members in February 2004.

At a press conference after their conviction, Onishi called the decision “a crisis for Japan and its democracy.”

The arrest of the three, after decades of antiwar campaigning by their tiny group the Tachikawa Tent Village, was taken as a sign by other activists that the authorities had upped the ante against their ideological enemies in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi sent a small contingent of SDF troops to Iraq in January 2004 despite a constitutional provision prohibiting the use of force to settle international disputes. It was the first deployment of Japan’s military to a war zone since 1945.

The Tachikawa fliers demanded that the troops and their families oppose the SDF dispatch and said: “Bush and Koizumi Are Not Going to the Front!”

Bordering an SDF base on the outskirts of Tokyo, the compound has no gates or permanent security and is visited daily by commercial hawkers.

Buddhist priest Yousei Arakawa was subsequently arrested in 2004 for distributing flyers at a Tokyo apartment building and held for 23 days without trial. Civil servant Akio Horikoshi was also convicted in 2006 for distributing Communist Party newspapers to homes in the city.

Amnesty International dubbed the Tachikawa Three Japan’s first “prisoners of conscience” in 2004, when they were detained for 75 days before release on bail. The Tokyo District Court acquitted them the same year, ruling that any injury to the residents was trivial and more than offset by the importance of protecting freedom of speech.

In December 2005, the Tokyo High Court overturned that ruling and declared Obora and his colleagues guilty of illegal intrusion. Justice Imai added a legal full-stop to that trespassing conviction, fining the activists a total of ¥500,000 for “violating the rights” of the SDF residents.

The Supreme Court recognized that “in a democratic society freedom of speech must be respected as an especially important right,” but said it must not be used to “improperly violate the rights of others,” adding that the SDF compound had repeatedly called the police to complain about the intrusions.

Was the court right that the activists had “disturbed the tranquillity of the personal lives” of the compound residents? Obora believes the verdict entirely misses the point.

“You can read the judgment over and over and still not understand what that means,” he says.

“All we did was post fliers, the same as ‘soba’ restaurants or pizza delivery shops and other services. Why are those people not arrested? Because we were posting antiwar leaflets. In other words, political messages are the problem.

“But what if we were distributing leaflets telling the SDF troops to keep going to Iraq? That would be fine, right?

“So we can only conclude that (the police) are selectively eliminating ideas they don’t agree with.”

The group has never denied that its fliers criticized the SDF dispatch or that this caused “discomfort” to some people, but says that this should not be the basis of a criminal charge.

“Look, it causes us discomfort to see fliers in the (conservative) Sankei newspaper. But that’s no reason for us to call the police,” says Obora. “It was a totally unjust and sloppy verdict,” with no dissenting voices from the judges, delivered on “just 10 sheets of A4 paper.”

Four years after the case began they remain stunned by their arrest.

“I mean, we’ve been doing this for 30 years,” explains Obora, laughing bitterly. “For eight years we posted fliers in the compound at least once a month.”

Phone calls by The Japan Times to the SDF housing complex were not returned, but on a visit there we found ads for local restaurants still being stuffed into postboxes, despite notices on the walls prohibiting them. Most residents refused to comment but one housewife, speaking anonymously through an intercom, said the flow of commercial fliers had not slowed since 2004.

The trial cost millions of yen and consumed the lives of Obora, 50, a cook at an elementary school, and Onishi and Takada, who are both 34 and work as home helpers with the disabled. Obora believes only support from work colleagues saved his job.

“If something good has come of the case it is that we are now known across the country and our support has grown,” he says, although he admits the group still has just seven members that share a cramped makeshift office in Tachikawa. The office was raided by the police after their arrest.

Being convicted of a criminal offense has not dampened their taste for action. They attended an antiwar demo in Tachikawa last month where the small group of protesters — about 90, according to Obora — was almost outnumbered by special police.

“They must think we’re very important,” he laughs.

Years of activism have helped them weather the storm. Obora has been around the antiwar movement since the 1970s and Onishi has been campaigning since the first Gulf War in the early 1990s.

“I felt unhappy that America was preparing to fight wars way into the future, despite the end of the Cold War,” he says, explaining why he joined up.

“Irrespective of the verdict,” he says he intends to keep campaigning. “Now more then ever it is important to keep going.”

The final conviction of the Tachikawa Three was welcomed by the conservative press and the Justice Ministry, which called last month’s verdict “satisfactory.” But there have been many dissenting voices. The dispatch of troops to Iraq “spurred the worst instincts of the country’s authoritarian past,” says Larry Repeta, professor of law at Tokyo’s Omiya School.

“Japan’s transformation into a peaceful and democratic society in the aftermath of World War II surely stands as one of the great success stories in democracy-building of all time. But the arrests, the detentions and the Supreme Court’s summary action in upholding them are reminders that Japan’s democracy remains a work in progress.”

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