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23-yr-old joins group to preserve anti-US base local history, promote peace movement

Kyoko Fukushima of "Sunagawa Peace Hiroba (Square)," left, watches Hiroshi Segami as he checks on vegetables they will serve at the cafeteria they plan to open, in the Tokyo's western suburban city of Tachikawa, on Aug. 5, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The Sunagawacho district of the suburban city of Tachikawa here was once the scene of the "Sunagawa conflict," a citizens' movement against the expansion of the airstrip at the former Tachikawa U.S. military base.

Now, in a corner of the residential district dotted with fields, there lies the office for the "Sunagawa Peace Hiroba (square)," a Tachikawa residents' group devoted to carrying on the history of the conflict. It was during February this year that 23-year-old Tokyo cram school worker Hiroshi Segami came knocking.

He arrived after searching for volunteer work that he could do during his free time. During his student days, Segami had volunteered in slums in the Philippines, and had an interest in both peace activities and fighting poverty. However, he had no idea that there had been a military installation in Tachikawa. He was also unaware that in May 1955, the Japanese government accepted a request from the U.S. military to expand the landing strip of the military base in the district, leading to the outbreak of the Sunagawa conflict.

Several thousand people gathered from around the country in protest, and clashed with dispatched police. As injuries arose, the conflict came to be called washed in blood. The Japanese government was forced to call off survey work for the expansion project, and the U.S. military announced that the expansion plan had been cancelled in 1968. In 1977, the base was completely returned to Japan.

On the walls of the office are black and white photographs of sit-in protests by residents and U.S. military aircraft flying directly above the houses of the district. Segami's eyes were opened in an instant to the history of the area.

The "square" was opened in 2010 by Kyoko Fukuoka, 68, the daughter of the late Masao Miyaoka, a farmer who was at the center of the movement against the expansion of the airstrip. She had opened the facility thinking that it would be a place to hold public lectures and other events related to the problem of the base, but the majority of the 20 members were aged 50 or older. In order to have the next generation that is unaware that the conflict took place make their way to the peace square, the group considered turning the facility into a cafeteria that provided free meals to the neighborhood children.

Fukushima showed Segami the field that her father had left her. Since the land was near a former Imperial Japanese Army base, it was a target in the air raids during the war, and the house there was burned to the ground. Once the war was over, the U.S. military seized the base facilities. When it was announced that the U.S. military would be expanding the landing strip, Fukushima's father, who had worked as an Imperial guard during the war, threw himself into the resistance movement.

"My father fought to not give up the land passed down to him by his ancestors to be used as a tool of war such as a military base," Fukushima said. When she was young, there were fragments of U.S. firebombs scattered around the land surrounding their house. The land that her father had gone all out protecting has become a place of departure for the peace movement. "By eating the vegetables grown on this land, I would like to create an opportunity for children today to think about war and peace," she explained.

Segami felt that he wanted to help Fukushima in any way he could. In addition to the cafeteria, he suggested also opening a free cram school were elementary students could come to study under his tutelage. They quickly made and distributed pamphlets.

However, they soon ran into an unexpected obstacle. At the beginning of May, they were shocked when local elementary pupils told them that their organization was "dangerous." Segami thought that it could be in part due to the fact that people were injured in the clashes between residents and police.

But the problem ran much deeper. While there were residents in Sunagawa that continued to protest against the seizure of their land, there were also those who accepted compensation money in exchange for their land, creating a divide in the area. Among the residents who fought to the bitter end were also some extremists. The residents finally separated themselves from the movement, and there was a change of generations in the area. But as a result, memory of the conflict faded, and only the isolation of former anti-base residents in the region remained. After her father's death, when Fukushima tried to send flowers to the funeral of a former friend of her father under the name of the anti-base residents group, she was refused.

There were also members of the peace square group that were wary of Segami, who had come in knowing nothing of the situation. Not having confidence in his ability to communicate with others, Segami decided that he would never be able to gain the understanding of other group members, and almost gave up trying. Still, Fukushima did not give up hope, "If we can get the internet generation to understand us, it will become a turning point for the movement," she said.

Still saddled with various worries, Segami began offering free English lessons to local elementary school students once a week. During a break, one young boy's eyes stopped on one of the black and white photos on the wall. "A long time ago, there was a U.S. base here," Segami began to explain, remembering all that Fukushima had told him.

On Aug. 12, the Sunagawa Peace Hiroba members and their family, roughly 30 people all together, held a "somen nagashi" event, cutting 4 meters worth of bamboo in half to funnel somen noodles as well as mini tomatoes and cucumbers through water flowing through the makeshift pipes. Children who joined in the free lessons also showed up. It was then they decided to open the cafeteria this September.

Fukushima hopes that the cafeteria can be a place where local parents in the middle of childrearing and the elderly can casually come. The division among the residents over U.S. bases is not an issue limited to Sunagawa, but is related to the struggles of places that faced or are facing similar issues all over the country. Who knows? Sunagawa may yet be the origin of a new movement for peace.

(By Tamami Kawakami, City News Department, 32 years old)

This is Part 5 of a series.

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