U.S. Navy 'Friendship Festival' draws line at the French

Mysterious inclusion as only country in Western Europe on military 'blacklist' spoils Yokohama day out for Frenchman

by Blair Mcbride

Could it be that the Friendship Day festivals held at the U.S. Navy Negishi Housing Base are not as friendly as the name suggests?

For the last 14 years the Negishi Heights complex in Yokohama has hosted public family festivals. The events feature bands and traditional Japanese music such as taiko drumming, along with stalls selling food and matsuri souvenirs. Most attendees are families living on the base and Yokohama locals. At the Negishi Open Base Bon Odori Festival last month, yukata-clad children munched on hot dogs and danced with their families.

But not everyone is welcome to these biannual events — perhaps surprising considering the international character of Yokohama. Eric Fior, 37, a French teacher living in Yokohama, has been denied entry to the event two years in a row.

“Two and three years ago they let me enter; only last summer they didn’t let me in,” he explains. “You need to show your ID to enter the base. I showed my ‘gaijin card’ to them at the gate. When they looked at the card they said I couldn’t enter. I asked why and he said, ‘Because you’re French.’

“They said there are new rules and French people cannot enter. I asked why and he didn’t give a reason.”

The situation worsened when Fior phoned his British friend, Yokohama resident Oliver Arlow, 39.

“I arrived and asked the Japanese guards why (Eric couldn’t enter) and they didn’t have an answer. Their immediate reaction was to call the American military police. The Americans showed up in full camouflage attire, combat boots, wraparound glasses — big guys. It was very intimidating,” recalls Arlow.

“I asked the Americans why we weren’t allowed on and they said, ‘We can’t give you that information.’ I asked again and they escorted me, my kids and my girlfriend off the premises. There was one guy in front of me and two guys were flanking him. He put his hand up and walked me backwards until we were on the road, which was then Japanese territory. They had achieved their aim at that point: I was off American territory.

“Then the Japanese military police came and I asked them questions and they wouldn’t answer anything. There was nothing we could do.”

So who is allowed onto U.S. military bases in Japan?

Michelle C. Stewart, public affairs officer at the U.S. Fleet Activities Yokosuka base, said in a phone interview that “there is a listing of countries that have to go through extra paperwork to get onto the base.”

“It takes a month to get those visitors approved,” she added. “The U.S. government determines what countries are approved or not into base installations.”

In an e-mail exchange with Lt. John M. Harden, deputy chief of public affairs at the Yokota Air Base, he explained that certain nationalities are on a TCN (Third Country Nationals) list.

“Third Country National access is part of our overall base access procedure and is therefore an operational force protection issue,” he said.

Asked which countries are on the TCN list, Harden replied, “The TCN list is not meant for public release, and I cannot provide further information about it.”

However, a simple Google search turned up what appears to be the TCN list. The scanned, six-page document with the official seal of United States Forces Japan is titled “Restrictions On Third Country Nationals To USFJ Installations And Areas” and dated April 1, 2009.

Page 5 contains the list of 62 TCNs. Much of the list is unsurprising. It includes most Middle Eastern nations, several African, Asian and Eastern European countries and a few South American ones. And then, sticking out oddly between Egypt and Georgia is the only Western European country on the list: France.

The days of tension over the Iraq war between Presidents Jacques Chirac in the Elysee and George W. Bush in the White House — and “freedom fries” in the cafeterias in U.S. Congress — are long gone. U.S. combat operations in Iraq are over, and France is the fourth-largest contributor of troops to the NATO-led force in Afghanistan.

Current French President Nicolas Sarkozy is known as “Sarkozy l’Americain” in his homeland for, among other things, his close relationship with Bush, unabashed admiration for the U.S. and his love of Elvis Presley. All this begs the question of why France features on the TCN list.

Neither Stewart nor Harden would comment specifically on France’s inclusion.

“I wish they would give a reason,” Fior said after being turned away again from this year’s Negishi Bon Odori Festival on Aug. 21. “I was very disappointed. I came to the gate with my three kids and showed my gaijin card. I could see that there was a problem.

“The guard said, ‘You can’t come in,’ and I asked why and he said, ‘Because you’re French.’ I said, ‘I’m not a terrorist.’ The guard said, ‘I feel very bad that you can’t enter.’ He told me I needed to get some special permission. I really don’t understand. I know that Chirac criticized America a lot, especially about Iraq. But now the president is Sarkozy and everyone knows he is pro-American.”

Frustrations and exclusions aside, the Friendship Festivals are held on a military base. And not only are U.S. military bases American territory, but also particularly sensitive territory.

“It’s their territory, but people need to know,” says Arlow. “Clearly there’s a security risk for some nations like the Chinese or North Koreans. But I’m shocked that they’ve singled out the French as undesirables. I find that very curious.”

“There’s no indication beforehand that some groups aren’t allowed on,” he adds. “This part of Yokohama is very international. I have friends around here from all over the world: Ghanaian, Tunisian, American. I don’t see any problems in this community. If you come a long way for this event and you aren’t allowed in, then you simply have to go home.”

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