Arrest of Henoko protesters

The circumstances of the arrest last week of two activists opposed to the construction of a replacement facility for the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture raise questions about the propriety of the arrest as well as suspicions that the U.S. military is about to crack down on protesters in general.

Such a perception could intensify local resentment against both the United States and the Japanese government, which is pushing the construction, possibly fueling more protests and confusion. The Abe administration should seriously think whether it is wise to stick to the construction plan against Okinawan people’s opposition, which has been clearly expressed in a recent series of elections.

On the morning of Feb. 22, protesters and Japanese guards hired by the U.S. military jostled in front of the gate of Camp Schwab, which is adjacent to the planned construction site in the Henoko area of the city of Nago.

According to media reports, Hiroji Yamashiro, head of the Okinawa Heiwa Undo Center, shouted to protesters to pull back from the boundary separating the national highway and the U.S. base to prevent confusion. In the face-off near the boundary line, protesters and guards tried to pull Yamashiro their way. The guards then held his legs and dragged him inside the base, reports quoted witnesses as saying.

Yamashiro and another protester dragged away were detained at the base for about four hours before being handed over to the Nago Police Station, where they were arrested and sent up to prosecutors. According to the reports, Yamashiro was no more than two or three steps into base property. One question is why the guards dragged the two protesters inside the base instead of pushing them out. It seems clear the two were not trying to intrude on the base. It’s hard to believe that the guards acted without instructions from the U.S. military.

A lawyer for the protesters has alleged that the guards deliberately targeted Yamashiro, who is playing a leading role in the protest movement, and that the U.S. military was trying to throttle the protest movement by detaining him.

The police arrested the protesters on the strength of a special law, under the Japan-U.S. security treaty, to punish those who enter or try to get secrets at U.S. military facilities in Japan. But the reported circumstances of the arrests raise questions of whether the law was abused.

The U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa told Kyodo News that the protesters were detained because one of them had assaulted the guards and entered the base premises — a charge rebutted by Yamashiro after he and the other protester were released by prosecutors the following day.

If local people come to view these detentions by the U.S. military as an indication that it is bent on cracking down on the protesters, the movement against the Henoko construction plan could strengthen and perhaps turn into protests against the very presence of the U.S. military. Tokyo and Washington should seriously consider the possibility that the arrests under the special law could foment resentment among Okinawans toward the security alliance itself.

After the incident, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani called on the protesters to restrain themselves, reminding them that a law prohibits entering a U.S. military facility. The Abe administration should realize that the protests are intensifying as a result of its pushing the Henoko construction while ignoring the will of the Okinawan people. Candidates opposed to the Henoko plan have won in three recent elections — the Nago mayoral election in January last year, the gubernatorial election in November and the single-seat constituency races in the Lower House election in December.

Protests could intensify unless the Abe administration comes up with an acceptable alternative plan to relocating the Futenma facility to Henoko.