National / Politics

1957 Sunagawa base incident puts spotlight on new security laws

by Keiji Hirano


Former activists petitioning for a retrial after they were fined for unlawfully entering a U.S. military base in Tokyo nearly 60 years ago have found their case in the spotlight once again due to the Abe administration’s push for Japan to have the right to exercise collective self-defense.

The new security legislation permitting collective self-defense took effect in March and the opposition bloc is campaigning on the issue in the lead-up to the July 10 Upper House election.

The Supreme Court decision in the Sunagawa Case, named after the area of Tokyo where the U.S. base was located, was issued in December 1959. It overturned the initial ruling by the Tokyo District Court, which acquitted all seven defendants accused of violating the special criminal law under the Japan-U.S. security treaty.

Delivering the not-guilty verdict at the district court, presiding Judge Akio Date ruled that the presence of U.S. forces in Japan went against the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution as it amounted to “war potential” and that the special criminal law was unconstitutional.

Article 9 stipulates that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

Quashing the ruling and sending the case back to the district court, the Supreme Court determined it is natural for Japan, “in the exercise of powers inherent in a state, to maintain peace and security, to take whatever measures may be necessary for self-defense, and to preserve its very existence.”

The top court also said Article 9 “does not at all prohibit our country from seeking a guarantee from another country in order to maintain the peace and security of the country.” The ruling led the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2014 to claim that the Supreme Court had given approval for exercising the right to self-defense regardless of whether it was collective or individual.

Gentaro Tsuchiya, 81, a former defendant in the Sunagawa Case, was surprised and angered by the government’s argument.

Tsuchiya and other former defendants filed a petition for a retrial in 2014 after declassified U.S. documents indicated that Kotaro Tanaka, chief justice of the Supreme Court, who presided over the Sunagawa Case trial, had had private contacts with senior U.S. diplomats in Tokyo and provided them with information on court procedures.

“These documents show Tanaka communicated in secret with an interested party in the trial, violating our constitutionally guaranteed right to a fair trial,” Tsuchiya said. “There is no way to accept the government’s reasoning, which is based on a ruling by a ‘contaminated court.'”

Tsuchiya, then a student activist at Meiji University in Tokyo, led groups of college students who tried to block surveying work for a planned expansion of the U.S. base.

The petition for a retrial, in which the former defendants sought to have the trial dismissed, was rejected by the Tokyo District Court in March, but they immediately filed an appeal with the Tokyo High Court.

Mitsuo Yoshinaga, a lawyer representing the petitioners, said it will be a big blow for the government’s push to expand the role of the nation’s self-defense forces if the 1959 Supreme Court ruling is nullified through a retrial.

The government reliance on the top court ruling to further expand the nation’s defense capabilities also faced harsh criticism from many local bar associations.

In its statement, Shiga Bar Association, for example, said while the focus of the Sunagawa trial was on whether the stationing of U.S. forces amounts to war potential, the Supreme Court did not rule whether it was constitutional for the nation to defend its allies if they were under armed attack even if Japan itself is not directly attacked.

On the revival of the Sunagawa Case, Tsuchiya said, “I thought it was over when I paid a ¥2,000 fine and moved on with my life. On the other hand, I have always been proud of being one of those who drew a significant ruling from Judge Date.”

Tsuchiya, who lives in the city of Shizuoka, has been involved with a citizens group raising awareness on the “Date Ruling” together with peace campaigners and lawyers.

While working to reopen the Sunagawa Case, the group is also focusing on Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in the nation. “To an extent, we were able to prevent the expansion of U.S. bases on Japan’s main islands, but as a result, we have regrettably imposed them on Okinawa,” Tsuchiya said.

Hirohisa Yoshizawa, secretary-general of the group, also pointed out that the special criminal law once ruled unconstitutional by the judge still remains valid.

“The Sunagawa Case is still very relevant,” said Yoshizawa, 80, who also joined the 1957 protest against the base expansion in Sunagawa, but managed to avoid arrest.

Encouraged by the nearly six-decade-old ruling in the pursuit of a retrial, Tsuchiya said, “I cannot bring down the curtain on the Sunagawa Case in the wake of the enactment of the security law and the issue of U.S. bases on Okinawa.”