In the early hours of February 27, 2004, Tokyo Metropolitan police officers raided the headquarters of the Tachikawa Jietai Kanshi Tento Mura (Tent Mura, or “Tent Village”), an antiwar watchdog organization located in the western Tokyo suburb of Tachikawa that has been engaged in monitoring the activities of the Japanese Self Defense Forces since its establishment in 1972.
Three members of Tent Mura were arrested that day, on grounds that they had violated anti-trespassing laws when they distributed antiwar flyers at an SDF housing unit one month earlier. The three, who continue to remain in police custody, have been designated as Japan’s first recognized prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International.
The Tent Mura activists stand at the crossroads of at least two major political and historical currents: Japan’s dispatch of its SDF to Iraq and subsequent efforts to silence vocal opponents to the country’s military policy, and an unforgiving justice system that is well-known for affording few – if any – rights to those who are prosecuted with a crime.
System of criminal injustice?
Tent Mura members have been distributing their anti-military themed leaflets for years with no problem whatsoever, just as a myriad of other organizations and businesses continue to leave their flyers in private mailboxes on a daily basis (including those as innocuous as pizza and sushi delivery establishments). The three activists have pleaded innocent to the charges against them, basing their defense on the right to freedom of expression that is provided for by the Japanese Constitution.
In Japan, however, 99% of defendants are found guilty once prosecuted – and there is almost no precedent for freedom of speech having been successfully argued as a line of defense. In what is generally seen as an attempt to coerce defendants to plead guilty, moreover, prosecutors and courts in Japan often deliberately drag out the cases of those who plead innocent – as well as automatically denying them the possibility of being released on bail. It is of little surprise, therefore, that the majority of those prosecuted in Japan opt to plead guilty simply to speed up their trial date – especially in cases where the punishment is a fine rather than jail time. The three Tent Mura activists have opted to maintain, however, that the mere act of passing out flyers constitutes no crime.
Japan’s prosecution system is divided into two separate phases: that of police custody, where defendants are held following their arrest; and detention centers, where they then await trail. The system of police custody in Japan is renowned for its severity, and has long been criticized by organizations such as Amnesty International for its lack of respect for human rights. Despite the fact that those kept in police custody have yet to be charged with any crime, they may meet with no outside visitors other than their lawyers; are kept under strict 24-hour surveillance (often in windowless rooms); and are normally subjected to anywhere from six to eight hours of questioning every day.
The three Tent Mura activists were kept in police custody for three weeks, and all three opted to exercise their right to remain silent during questioning. While they would normally have been transferred to a detention center following the formal levying of charges on March 19th, a lack of available space has resulted in their continuing to remain in police custody for the time being.
Tent Mura members and supporters are now busily working to collect the total of six million yen (two million yen for each of the three) that will be required in order to possibly secure their release on bail following the initial trial, which has been scheduled for May 6th.
Intensified antiwar crackdown follows SDF Iraq dispatch
According to other members of Tent Mura, the police department’s selective application of the anti-trespassing law to antiwar protestors is a clear indication that the government is determined to quash any organized vocal resistance to its policies regarding the war taking place in Iraq.
At the same time as Tent Mura headquarters was being raided, police forcibly entered the homes of three other group members. The officers conducted invasive searches of their personal belongings, carried out intensive interrogations, and confiscated materials such as personal computers and cellular telephones. “We were completely unprepared for anything like this. It came totally out of the blue,” comments Mori Inoue, a recent university graduate and Tent Mura member who recounts the frightening experience of several police officers suddenly raiding his home early in the morning. “It could just as easily have been me or any of countless others who was arrested that day, since leafleting is one of our major activities.”
Inoue explains that a major aim of the police in conducting the arrests was precisely to scare others away from spreading their antiwar message to the public. The government is particularly interested in keeping this message far away from SDF personnel and family members, whom the flyers urged to think deeply about the meaning of the dispatch to Iraq and to join the voices of opposition to the Iraqi war.
To some extent, moreover, this government fear tactic has worked. Leafleting campaigns carried out in other areas of the country that house units of the SDF, including Yokosuka and Okinawa, have scaled back or been stopped completely, and one scheduled to begin in Fuchu (near Tachikawa) was abandoned altogether.
“There is no way we are giving up on spreading our message, though,” asserts Inoue. “We also want to urge everyone to keep supporting our three members in detention. The police will deliberately try to drag things on, but we’ve got to keep the momentum strong.”
History of organized resistance
Tent Mura was founded in 1972 in an effort to prevent Japan’s Self Defense Forces from occupying army base land in Tachikawa following the relocation of U.S. forces to its present site in Yokota. In its quest to spread its anti-military message, the group copied tactics that had been used with success by other activist groups.
“We were inspired by what had happened earlier that year at the U.S. military supply station located at Sagami Bay, where a group of local citizens and students set up tents to prevent war supplies from being sent to Vietnam,” explains founding member and seasoned antiwar activist Katsuko Kato. “We decided to use the same strategy in Tachikawa by pitching tents and protesting the SDF. It was an exciting grassroots movement, and there were all different kinds of people involved.”
Tent Mura also shares roots with the organized resistance that occurred in 1955 following the end of the Allied Occupation, when the U.S. military tried to expand the Tachikawa base to the neighboring farming town of Sunagawa. Government officials began appearing at residents’ homes in the middle of the night to coerce them to sell their land, which resulted in severe family breakdowns and most of the area’s 200 landowners eventually opting to vacate.
Nationwide protests prevented the expansion from occurring, however, which led to the decision to relocate the base to the site in Yokota. Since the relocation did not occur until 1977, the Tachikawa base site was utilized by both the U.S. military and the Japanese SDF for five years. Tent Mura directs its protests at both institutions, due to its fundamental desire to eliminate militarism in all of its forms.
Tent Mura is no stranger, moreover, to direct clashes with authority. When the group’s efforts failed to prevent the SDF from occupying the base land, ten members including Kato held a sit-in protest at the site as the forces moved in – and ended up spending three days in jail as a result. Undeterred, however, they continued on.
In 1975, Tent Mura headquarters was destroyed by an arsonist – and police then prevented the group from setting up again near the base. The activists responded by renting a nearby apartment, and investing in a full-fledged sound system with which to broadcast their anti-military message outside the base. While police officers at first tried to stop them, they eventually tired of chasing the protesters away. “It was truly a battle of the wills between the police and our members in terms of who would back down first,” explains Kato.
When the SDF announced plans to construct a new runway for the base in the early 1980’s, Tent Mura knew they had a challenge on their hands. Not to be fazed, Kato recalls that group members began conducting extensive research into possible methods by which to thwart the plans for construction. While stopping it altogether did not appear feasible, the group came up with the idea to limit the runway’s scope by legally purchasing property surrounding the proposed site.
Group members studied local newspaper listings, and managed to scrape together enough savings and donations to purchase a tall building close to the southern end of the runway site with an apartment for rent on the top floor. The northern end presented more difficulties, however, since it was surrounded by private farmland. Tent Mura members consulted with one of the landowners, who was a member of the organization working against the Sunagawa base expansion, and secured permission to build a structure onsite. The result was a 21 meter-high iron pole, which rested on a solid concrete base and displayed a red flag symbolizing the organization’s anti-base stance.
While the runway did end up being built as scheduled, the strategic positioning of the two structures greatly restricted the flight path of incoming and outgoing military planes – evidence that the group’s creative act of resistance had indeed paid off.
Following repeated acts of vandalism against the flagpole and intense pressure from authorities to take it down, however, the landowner eventually succumbed and asked Tent Mura to oblige. “In the end, though, we didn’t mind,” explains Kato. “This just meant that we could start using the land for raising crops, which we felt was another life-affirming way by which we could actively resist the use of land for purposes connected with the military.”
Future of antiwar protest in Japan
The recent arrest of the three Tent Mura members seems to be part of a broader trend of heavy-handed police response to those who dare to speak out against the Japanese government’s policies with regard to the war in Iraq. Other recent incidents include a young man who was given a 14-month jail sentence for writing an antiwar graffiti message, a protester who was arrested in Asahikawa, Hokkaido (from where SDF units were dispatched to Iraq), and a police raid on the home of an activist who engaged in regular peaceful protests of the Iraqi war in front of the U.S. embassy.
Kato, whose lifework as a peace activist was inspired by a diary left behind by her father that recounted his experiences as a soldier with the Japanese army in China prior to World War II, laments this trend as being grounded in an attempt by the government to prevent citizens from engaging in organized action to protest Japan’s action of sending its SDF forces to Iraq.
She cites historical examples of periods when such activism flourished in Japan, including a gathering of 200,000 people at the Diet to protest the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty during the 1960’s; impassioned anti-military activism on the part of Tent Mura and other groups in the 1970’s; and thriving citizen movements around many different social causes during the 1980’s. “The illegalization of activities that are as benign as leafleting is devastating to groups such as ours, who can’t afford to pay to utilize mainstream media channels,” she says. “The government is just cutting off our voice at the source.”
Granted, today’s generation of activists now have at their disposal the powerful tools of the internet and e-mail, which has clearly altered the landscape of citizen organizing in fundamental ways. Tent Mura’s gutsy history of “on-the-frontlines” activism, however, is certainly one that continues to deserve profound respect.
--Kimberly Hughes (originally published at the Pacific Asia Resource Center newsletter, October 2004)
Contact Tent Mura at:
Visit their homepage at:
Donations to help post bail for the three arrested members are
gratefully accepted at:
Postal account # 00190-2-560928
Tachikawa Jietai Kanshi Tent Mura
Please indicate “Kyuen Kampa” (“relief fund”) on your transfer.
A demonstration / meeting to protest the prosecution of the three Tent Mura members and share information and resources with regard to antiwar and anti-base issues will be held on Sunday, April 25th at 1:00 p.m. at Hitotsubashi University (seven minutes’ walk from JR Kunitachi station). Room # will be posted at the main gate to the university on the day of the event, or contact Tent Mura directly for details. All concerned individuals are encouraged to attend.
From the Tent Mura pamphlet:
We will act against bases here in Tachikawa and wars, now and in the future. Although we face a hard struggle, let’s move on together towards the goal of a society which has no wars, massacres, discrimination or oppression.