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JAPAN/US: ‘Respect Women Before Setting Up Military Bases’

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, Jan 31 2007 (IPS) - Japan’s plans to boost its defence capability with the support of the United States is being opposed by women’s rights activists who say that U.S. military bases in this country are a danger to women who live in their vicinities.

More than a hundred women activists and their supporters, including Korean anti-American base groups, held a meeting on Monday night to mark the first anniversary of the murder of a 56-year-old woman who was robbed and killed by an American sailor on January 2006, close to Camp Zama in Yokusuka, Kanagawa prefecture, a suburb of Tokyo.

Reiko Ashizawa, one of the organisers, blamed ‘’sheer lack of respect for Asian women in the U.S. military and the Japanese government as the root cause of the problem.”

‘’We are up against a culture where women’s rights are considered secondary. Our demonstration drew attention to this situation,” she told IPS.

Activists say they are ready to fight jointly with their counterparts in Asia – particularly in the Philippines and South Korea – as Tokyo prepares to strengthen collaboration with the U.S. military in Japan.

Already Ashizawa has joined other activists to collect signatures and raise funds for a Filipina rape victim. The perpetrator was convicted in December, but was afterwards controversially removed to custody within the premises of the U.S. embassy in Manila under the visiting forces agreement (VFA) between the two countries.

According to the Gabriella Women’s Party in the Philippines there were 82 cases of sexual abuse committed against women and 15 cases against children by U.S. servicemen before the U.S. Bases Agreement, signed in 1947, was finally terminated in September 1991.

Criminal acts and cases of sexual abuse, including the rape of a 12-year-old Japanese girl by three Marines in 1995, resulted in the relocation of the U.S. base within Okinawa prefecture. The U.S. currently maintains 50,000 troops on Japanese soil.

Plans have been passed in the Diet (parliament) that provides for the deployment of carrier-based fighter jets in Okinawa and the setting up of a new U.S. radar system for ballistic missile defence on the island.

Suzuyo Takasato, a leading activist in Okinawa, heads one of several movements that record in detail instances of violence committed by U.S. military personnel on women in Japan.

Takasato points to a survey by activists who scoured newspapers and other publications and also conducted their own research, to find at least six cases of serious crimes perpetrated against women that have led to arrests of U.S. servicemen stationed on Okinawa.

‘’The numbers could be much higher because women do not report every harassment that occurs,” explained Takasato

One argument being advanced against U.S. bases in Japan by activists here is that they are contributing to the fear of abuse of women in other parts of Asia.

‘’The provision of bases on Okinawa for American military personnel make Japanese women feel guilty and they want to increase solidarity with activists from other parts of Asia that are protesting against violations by U.S. servicemen in their countries,” Takasato told IPS.

Official records also indicate that crimes and other incidents involving U.S. military personnel and civilian employees stationed in Japan are rising, though documentation is weak.

Japan’s defence agency, which was upgraded to the level of a ministry this month, has records that show 1,866 cases in 2004 and 2,079 cases in 2003 – nearly 50 percent higher than a decade ago.

Traffic violations, robberies, rape and murder were reported. Under the U.S.-Japan Armed Forces Agreement, American soldiers arrested for crimes against local civilians can either be handed over to Japanese police or placed under U.S. custody but primacy is given to U.S. authority.

Protests against such protection go unheeded because of the official argument that U.S. bases are crucial for Japan’s security. But women’s rights activists and their supporters are not ready to buy that and say respect for women must come first.

A landmark ruling in this direction was recorded on Monday when NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, was ordered to pay compensation to an anti-war women’s group for altering a television programme on Japan’s war time sex slavery.

NHK was rapped for “betraying trust and expectations of the plaintiff, cutting parts of a documentary it aired in 2001 on a mock trial on the ‘comfort women’ system that was organised by the Violence Against Women in War-Network (VAWW-NET, Japan).”

In the judgement, an international team of human rights experts found the Emperor, head of the now defunct Japanese Imperial army, responsible for the comfort women system that enslaved tens of thousands of young Asian women – a section that was not aired by NHK.

Rumiko Nishino, the group’s co-leader, told IPS, the verdict was heartening for ‘’it has spotlighted the relationship between war and violence against women and linked it to American military personnel stationed in Japan and across Asia.”

Despite the victory, the sticking point in the case was the decision by the court to absolve Shinzo Abe, now prime minister of Japan and other senior politicians, of charges made by the plaintiff of pressurising or influencing NHK in the final airing.

Hisako Motoyama, spokeswoman for the Asian Women’s Information Network, says the difficulty to get male politicians to take responsibility for human rights violations against women represents the core of their battle for justice.

‘’Justice for women stems from the lack of awareness in Japan on the reproductive rights of women,” she pointed out.

Motoyama is now campaigning with other activists and opposition female politicians to force Hakuo Yanagisawa, minister for health welfare and labour, to resign for calling women ‘’birthing machines”. The comment, made on Sunday during a public speech, was in reference to the nation’s declining population with Yanagisawa urging women to have more babies for the good of the country. He later withdrew the comments.

‘’As a senior politician he has the responsibility to display a sympathy and responsibility for the difficult decisions women face today in a tough working climate when they have to choose between family or career as a result of long working hours and unstable contracts,” Motoyama explained to IPS.

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