Despite Japan's vaunted social harmony, the rise in global terrorism is fast slamming the door shut on grassroots activism in the country, say human rights groups.
A recent case, criticised by Amnesty International Japan, involves the arrest and continued detention of three activists on 27 February for distributing pamphlets opposing the dispatch to Iraq of troops from Japan's Self-Defence Forces (SDF), the closest thing the country has to an armed forces.
The activists--two man and a woman--were arrested on charges of "trespassing" under Article 130 of the Japanese Criminal Code. But human rights experts say the police action against activists who merely distributed anti-war pamphlets is a disturbing sign of the increasing repression of activism in Japan.
"There is nothing wrong in distributing pamphlets, even if the aim was an anti-SDF deployment protest. The arrests are a clear case of the violation of the freedom of speech and comes during a time when security issues are high in the country," says Makoto Teranaka of Amnesty International Japan.
The arrested members belong to the Tachikawa Tent Village, a group that protested for more than three decades against a former U.S. base in a suburb west of Tokyo.
Tamaki Kino, spokes-person for the group, says the arrests came a month after the members left anti-Iraq war pamphlets in mailboxes belonging to the families of SDF personnel. "We were stunned when the police swooped down on our homes a month after we put the pamphlets into mailboxes. They searched our houses on the basis of complaints against us. But there are so many vendors who routinely do what we did," she says.
The group's pamphlets called on SDF families to think more carefully about the deployment to Iraq.
"The pamphlets were geared to generate debate on the SDF among family members. After all, getting the SDF to rethink their deployment is important for a large number of people who oppose Japan's decision to send troops to Iraq," says Kino.
A major bone of contention for activists is the unusually long period in detention and daily interrogation meted out to the prisoners. Says Teranaka, "The harassment sends a chilling message to activists because they are up against a police system that has' a poor human rights record (on issues) such as access to lawyers during interrogation."
Public opinion polls show that almost half of the Japanese public opposed the move by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to send the SDF to Iraq in January, marking the first post-World War II SDF dispatch to a military zone.
Some 1,000 SDF troops are expected to be sent to Iraq, and several hundreds are already there, the last batch having left the country in late January 2004. The dispatch of troops was traumatic for Japanese, who turned their back on military activities after their country's defeat at the end of World War II. …