Okinawan stages hunger strike over fatal hit-and-run
December 26, 2009
YOMITAN, Okinawa — A village councilmember is staging a limited hunger strike in front of Torii Station, demanding the Army surrender a soldier suspected of fatally injuring a 66-year-old Okinawan in a hit-and-run last month.
Yomitan councilmember and anti-base activist Shoichi Chibana said he will not eat for four days to bring attention to the lack of progress in the case. He stopped eating Tuesday and is camped out in a tent near the base’s main gate.
He said he decided to stage the strike to bring Yomitan residents’ concerns to the attention of the U.S. military and the Japanese government.
“We filed protests with U.S. military here on Okinawa as well as Japanese government agencies, but nothing seems to be happening,” he said. “It’s as if the life of the victim and the residents of Yomitan are being taken lightly.”
Chibana is a well-known opponent of the U.S. bases on Okinawa. In 1996 he led protests to shut down a Navy communications antenna facility in Yomitan, known locally as the “elephant cage.”
“We must push the government and military to move the investigation forward,” he said.
About a dozen people gathered near the tent Wednesday afternoon.
“The accident was an opportunity for us to pause and think seriously about the status of forces agreement, which seems so unfair,” said Kenzo Kina, 31, of Yomitan. “Once they run into the base, they can get away with any crime they committed without being punished.”
Meanwhile, the mayor of Yomitan is putting pressure on Japanese police to go forward with charges in the case.
Keizo Yasuda and other village officials journeyed to Tokyo on Monday to personally deliver a request to Hiroshi Nakai, chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, demanding the immediate handover of the 27-year-old staff sergeant.
Okinawa police have still not officially charged the soldier, whom they identified as the driver of a car that struck Masakazu Hokama as he was walking home before dawn on Nov. 7. An autopsy showed he had a broken neck.
The soldier is refusing to be questioned, claiming a statement he made to police in the week after the fatal accident was mistranslated. He claims he knew he hit something while driving home to his apartment in Yomitan, but stopped and looked around and did not see a body, according to his Japanese lawyer, Toshimitsu Takaesu.
He remains restricted to the base, an Army spokesman said.
Village residents are becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in the investigation.
“The solider has long been identified as the suspect, but after more than 40 days after the accident, he is still walking freely,” Keiko Itokazu, a Diet member from Yomitan who accompanied the mayor, told Stars and Stripes on Wednesday.
She said Nakai assured the delegation that the soldier’s passport and ID card have been surrendered to Army officials and there is no possibility of flight.
“He also told us that police are intensively working to gather evidence so that the case is not rejected at court with lack of evidence,” Itokazu said.