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Berkeley name opens doors in sister city

By Steve Freedkin, Special to the Daily Planet
Monday March 25, 2002



Steve Freedkin, a member of Berkeley's Peace and Justice Commission and publisher of the activist Web site, is in Japan for 11 days of meetings with grassroots activists and public officials. This is the second in the series of reports from Japan. 


SAKAI, Japan -- Here in Berkeley's Japanese sister city, as in other Japanese communities, our city's name has been enough to open doors to the usually inaccessible inner sanctums of local government. 

Japanese peace-and-justice activists, who have invited me for 11 days of meetings as an emissary from Berkeley, say they usually cannot gain access to high-level officials, and they have a hard time getting media coverage. But my presence has led to meetings with Sakai's mayor and city council leaders, as well as top officials in Hiroshima, Iwakuni (where there is a U.S. Marine base), and Kobe. 


Berkeley Name Provides Access 

During these meetings, local activists pressed these officials on various hot-button issues: 

• Japan's national government is considering a series of “emergency laws” that would enable increased Japanese participation in military adventures unrelated to defense of this country.  

Activists are asking local governments to object to the proposal, which they say would usurp local authority. 

• In Iwakuni, home to a U.S. military base, my visit provided an opening for local activists to present a petition to their government opposing the expansion of the U.S. Marine base here. At Japanese taxpayers' expense, a massive landfill project has begun, aiming to expand the base by 40 percent by filling in the seabed offshore. In the process, according to City Council Member Jungen Tamura, who took me on a tour of the base perimeter, the habitat for a rare species of sea grass will be destroyed. 

• The military base at Iwakuni is shared with the Japanese Self Defense Forces. The Japanese military's support role in the Afghanistan campaign is particularly controversial in this country, whose constitution contains a clause rejecting the legitimacy of warfare. This support role (providing several ships, primarily for refueling) was originally slated to end in May, but news reports here say it may be extended another six months. 

My presence in Iwakuni brought out the entire local press corps, including four television stations, and garnered extensive news coverage. 

• In Kobe, we compared notes with the director of one of the country's largest ports regarding the Nuclear Free Berkeley Act and Kobe's nuclear-free port policy, which prohibits nuclear-armed vessels from docking here. Both the Japanese national government and the United States are pressuring Kobe to relent on this 28-year-old policy. 

• Here in Sakai, we discussed the role of women in government. Throughout Japan, activists have expressed surprise and delight that eight of Berkeley's nine city council members are women. Yoshii Reiko, the Sakai city council woman who introduced us to Mayor Keisuke Kihara and city council leaders, is one of the few women on the council. Hiroshima's mayor has struggled for three years against opposition to his campaign pledge to appoint a woman vice mayor. (Throughout my visit, many of the city council members who've  

attended activist meetings have been women.) 

• In Hiroshima, after meeting with top government officials, I was given a tour of the peace museum by the museum's director, Minoru Hataguchi, and of the adjacent peace park by Haruko Moritaki, whose father founded Japan's leading peace group after World War II. I met with several survivors of the atomic bombing of this city. Keisaburo Toyonaga described his experiences in the first hours and days after that cataclysm, and his work today to redress the  

discrimination faced by the hibakusha, the a-bomb survivors, especially those of Korean descent. He provided contacts with a hibakusha organization in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Here, too, the Berkeley name brought out the media: I was interviewed by a reporter for Asahi Shumbun, Japan's leading national paper, whose English-language edition is read around the world. 


Berkeley Inspires Action Strategy 

Berkeley came to the attention of activists here in October, when the City Council passed a resolution calling for ending the bombing of Afghanistan as soon as possible. Since then, several delegations from Japan have visited Berkeley (one is there now), and they've come away with what are, for Japan, radical concepts about citizen involvement in local government. 

Here in Japan, national government officials, elected and otherwise, are generally inaccessible to average citizens outside of the political-party structure. Inspired by Berkeley's stances on international issues, activists have developed a strategy of pressing local governments to pass resolutions regarding in national policy, particularly the emergency laws and opposition to the continued “war on terrorism,” including possible extension to Iraq. 

The “think globally, act locally” approach, spurred on by Berkeley's Afghanistan resolution, has given Japanese grassroots activists an avenue for breaking into the rigidly hierarchical political structure here. Unlike most local groups in the U.S., Japanese grassroots activists closely coordinate their efforts in different cities. Independent city council members across Japan(those unaffiliated with the major political parties) have formed a  

“Rainbow and Green” alliance to promote a progressive agenda through coordinated local action. 

To further their efforts, grassroots groups in Hiroshima, Tokyo, and elsewhere are attempting to arrange a visit from Congressmember Barbara Lee within the next few months. Such a visit would not be without impact back home: U.S. polls show that most Americans would oppose widening the “war on terrorism” without support from U.S. allies, so strengthening the peace movement in  

Japan can, in turn, help U.S. activists contain our government's adventurism. 


Making History An Ocean Away 

When Berkeley council member Dona Spring first introduced her Afghanistan resolution last October, surely she could not have imagined the impact it would have on the incipient grassroots movement here on the other side of the globe. 

Here in the Land of the Rising Sun, there is a feeling that I imagine is not unlike the energy in America in the 1770s, when a new nation was being born. When historians chronicle the Japanese grassroots movement at the dawn of the 21st century, they will surely include a nod to the influence of Berkeley, California, USA.