Hiroji Yamashiro describes himself as a “rough country boy from Okinawa” and does not seem the type who might be given to overt displays of emotion.
June 23, however, marked the 72nd anniversary of the end of the fighting on Okinawa and even now – more than six months later – it is clear he is furious about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to attend an event commemorating the battle of Okinawa in the prefecture.
“I was completely against his presence at the event because of his belligerence and his movement towards a state of war,” Yamashiro says, his fists clenched.
“There is no way that I could condone his participation, and his comments on how he wants to reduce the burden of the US military bases in Okinawa are just words.
“If he actually meant what he said, then we would have seen some concrete actions. Instead, this is a government that promotes violence and oppression of peaceful protesters and until I see genuine action, then it is impossible to accept his words.”
Yamashiro’s barely concealed anger is borne out of deep-seated opposition to the US military presence in his prefecture, a position that has got him in trouble with the authorities before.
Arrested three times, he was most recently detained in March for allegedly damaging a wire fence around the US military base at Camp Schwab, in the north-east of the prefecture.
Work is under way to expand the base, including the construction of two new runways on reclaimed land in the bay, so the facility can take over the functions of the US Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station. Protests are held daily outside the gates of the base, with demonstrators trying to block access for team builders and their equipment.
He was held for 152 days, during which he withstood pressure to sign a confession admitting to damaging the fence, obstructing access to the base and injuring a local defence bureau official by grabbing his shoulder. Yamashiro was only released as a result of international pressure, including from the United Nations.
The case is ongoing and Yamashiro, chairman of the Okinawa Peace Movement Centre, used the final hearing at which he was permitted to address the court, on November 20, to reiterate that his arrest was unfair and the actions of the government should be considered illegal.
On December 20, his lawyers delivered a final summation in the case, insisting Yamashiro’s actions were not a crime because he was resisting oppression.
The prosecution closed its case by demanding a prison term of four-and-a-half years. The Naha District Court is due to announce its verdict – and Yamashiro’s sentence – on March 14.
A court order has limited Yamashiro’s movements and whom he meets, but he has been using his time between hearings to tell people at home and abroad about the unhappiness the US bases have inflicted upon the people of Okinawa.
“More bases are being built and others are being expanded – the government says they are needed to face the threat of China – but the people of Okinawa are fighting against them,” he says, adding that even so many years after the devastation wrought on the islands, “there are still lots of people who saw that tragedy and do not want to go through it again”.
Yamashiro believes the Abe administration is intent on building up the Japanese military, which will inevitably bring the nation into conflict with other countries competing for the same resources or territory. And that could touch off another conflict, potentially worse than the last one that ravaged the islands.
He is equally furious at the way, he says, authorities are trying to stifle dissent and free speech.
“I was held for 152 days and, during that time, I was not permitted to see my family, I had limited access to a lawyer and I was unable to meet the specialist who was treating my lymphoma,” he says. “And all the time, I was being told to admit the charges against me. But I maintained my silence.”
Lawyers and human rights groups, including Amnesty International, took up his case and he was finally released. Yamashiro believes the Japanese authorities were trying to break his will by holding him for the entire duration of his trial.
Soon after his release, Yamashiro went to Geneva, where he addressed he UN Human Rights Council and took part in a symposium. He accused the Japanese government of “clear human rights violations” against opponents of US bases in Okinawa.
“I and the people of Okinawa will never bow to oppression,” he told the UN. “I demand that the government of Japan stop human rights violations and respect the Okinawan people’s will against the construction of new US and Japanese military bases.”
Yamashiro’s concerns for the peace and stability of the region have only deepened since Donald Trump became US president.
“His is the kind of person who does not filter his speech, he shoots from the hip and says what he wants to the American people,” he says. “But from an Okinawa perspective, he reeks of danger for us. He has called for Japan to take up more of the burden of defence, and I fear that will once again fall on the shoulders of the people of Okinawa.
“Abe is in lockstep with Trump and that makes me worried. For the last 72 years, Okinawans have put up with the US military presence; it is high time that we were relieved of this burden.”