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Okinawa ‘prisoner of conscience’ to address U.N. about perceived abuses

by Jon Mitchell

Special To The Japan Times

Ahead of this week’s trip to Geneva to address the United Nations Human Rights Council about perceived Japanese government abuses, Hiroji Yamashiro, chairman of the Okinawa Peace Action Center, has described himself as a “prisoner of conscience.”

In an interview in the city of Okinawa, Yamashiro said his prolonged detention from last October to March this year was an attempt by Tokyo to stifle free speech and Okinawans’ protests against the construction of new military facilities on their islands.

Yamashiro had been detained on rolling charges of cutting barbed wire and shaking the arm of a public official at the construction site of new U.S. Marine Corps Osprey pads in Takae, and the piling of concrete blocks to obstruct access to another new installation at Henoko.

“During my detention, I was interrogated for hours every day,” Yamashiro said. “I was allowed no visitors except my lawyer and I could receive no letters from my family.”

The conditions were harsh, says Yamashiro, but his spirits were buoyed by the supporters who gathered each day outside the jail to chant and sing their support.

“Sometimes the guards used to turn up the volume of their radio to drown out their voices,” he said, “but I could still hear them.”

In January, Amnesty International issued a statement of Urgent Action highlighting Yamashiro’s detention and he believes this pressure contributed to his release on bail. But now, he said, he fears there is worse to come.

“The government’s new conspiracy bill directly targets Okinawans and attempts to deter those who protest against military construction,” he said. “We Okinawans know firsthand from our experiences of the Battle of Okinawa that military bases don’t really protect people — they only promote war.”

Yamashiro explained that his own father was a child soldier conscripted into the Japanese military on Okinawa during World War II. Provided with a pack of explosives, he was dispatched on a suicide mission to blow up an American tank but his life was spared when no tanks drove nearby. Later he was wounded then captured and sent to Hawaii as a prisoner of war.

Yamashiro explained that he is not anti-American but he believes the burden of military bases on Okinawa is unjust. He said he wished American and mainland Japanese people would understand the cultural differences between Okinawa and the rest of Japan.

“Historically, Japan has possessed a militarist culture that, for example, glorified the samurai. But here on Okinawa, such a culture of violence has not existed. Instead of the katana (sword), we have the sanshin (a traditional musical instrument).”

At the heart of tensions between the government and Okinawa, suggested Yamashiro, is a conflicting vision of the islands’ future.

The government, Yamashiro said, wants to further militarize Okinawa and maintain it as a bulwark against foreign incursions — particularly from China. However, many Okinawans would rather promote their islands as a place where international visitors can engage in peaceful dialogue.

Yamashiro believes the islands’ flourishing tourist trade can promote such exchanges and visitors are attracted by Okinawa’s unique coral reefs and subtropical jungle — the very sites he was arrested for trying to protect.

Scheduled to speak at the same symposium as Yamashiro in Geneva will be David Kaye, U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression, who recently criticized the Japanese government for, what he saw, as its crackdown on freedom of expression.

In his latest report to the U.N., Kaye specifically highlighted the detention of Yamashiro, writing, “the Special Rapporteur is concerned that this government action could chill expression and particularly public protest and dissent.”