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HOME  > Past issues  > 2008 February 6 - 12  > Otaru City residents continue to struggle to prevent military use of their port
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2008 February 6 - 12 [PEACE]

Otaru City residents continue to struggle to prevent military use of their port

February 9, 2008
The U.S. Navy Seventh Fleet flagship Blue Ridge forcibly entered Otaru Port in Hokkaido on February 7. Otaru City residents, however, are increasing their grassroots movement under the banner of Article 9 to prevent the commercial port from being turned into a military port.

Otaru City opened its snow festival on February 8, the day after the U.S. warship’s entrance. A similar event was also taking place in the neighboring city of Sapporo. The Blue Ridge forcibly visited Otaru Port at a time when some two million visitors were coming to the area from across the country.

Pressed by residents who want peace, the city government initially refused to accept the entry of the Blue Ridge, stating that it gives priority to commercial use of the port.

Cargo ships’ visits ‘delayed’

The Foreign Ministry repeatedly made inquiries into the matter to the city government. On January 31, the Foreign Ministry Status of U.S. Forces Agreement Division director flew to the city and discussed the issue with heads of the general affairs department and ports and harbors department of the city. On February 1, he visited Mayor Yamada Katsumaro.

It was the same day that a cargo ship is said to have informed Otaru of a delay of 10 days in its arrival. Immediately after that, the Blue Ridge again strongly requested the city to arrange a berth for it.

This was not the first time that a commercial ship postponed its entry to Otaru when originally scheduled for entry at the same time as a U.S. warship visit. When the Seventh Fleet aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk tried to enter the port in October 2000, a large cargo ship that had planned to use the pier delayed its arrival due to multiple “coincidences”, including “bad weather” and “delay in passage through the Panama Canal.”

As shown in a classified government document revealed by the Ryukyu Shimpo, Okinawa’s local newspaper, the Japanese and U.S. governments agreed to give U.S. forces preferential right to use Otaru Port as well as Muroran Port, also located in Hokkaido, anytime they want.

In 1997 when the government revised the Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation, Otaru became Japan’s first commercial port that the U.S. aircraft carrier Independence forcibly entered. In 2000, the Kitty Hawk visited the port as soon as the Law on the Situation in Areas Surrounding Japan took effect.

Hoping for their city to develop as a commercial and tourist spot, residents of Otaru City have tenaciously continued their struggle opposing the entry of U.S. warships.

The 1997 entry of the Independence attracted 350,000 onlookers partly due to wide media coverage, but the number dropped to 70,000 when the Kitty Hawk entered in 2000. The U.S. Cruiser Vincennes, which tried to visit along with the aircraft carrier, was refused entry by the city.

No economic benefits

Those who favor U.S. warships’ port calls emphasize the “economic benefits” they will bring to the city. The Otaru City Chamber of Commerce, however, says that there has been no marked positive effect.

When the Independence entered in 1997, the mayor attended a welcome ceremony, but when the Kitty Hawk entered in 2000, the deputy mayor attended a similar event. When the Kitty Hawk entered again in July 2006, the warship refrained from opening it to the public. Mayor Yamada absented himself from an on-ship ceremony to celebrate the U.S. Independence Day in that year.

U.S. warships were forced to give up entering Otaru several times. In February 2001, the Aegis destroyer John S. McCain had to postpone its visit to the port because of the incident that occurred earlier in the month in which the Ehime Maru, a Japanese high school fisheries training vessel, was struck and subsequently sunk by a U.S. nuclear submarine off Hawaii. The U.S. frigate Ingraham canceled its entrance scheduled for May 2003 while the war continued in Iraq.

In January 2006, a Japanese woman was killed by a U.S. sailor in Yokosuka City in Kanagawa Prefecture. The Blue Ridge was planning to visit Otaru Port right after the incident, but Otaru City refused the request on the grounds that the city is prioritizing the work to deal with the record snowfall.

Concerning the Blue Ridge’s recent entry, Otaru City received in a short period of time about 330 e-mails and fax messages from residents calling on the city to maintain its position of rejecting its entrance.

For a non-nuclear port

Otaru Peace Committee Chair Takashina Koji said, “We have carried out protest actions against U.S. warships’ port calls that have been made almost every year. Public opinion against the military use of the port is developing.” “Otaru City has declared itself a peaceful city free of nuclear weapons. We are striving to increase our movement to establish an ordinance to make the port free of nuclear weapons,” he stressed.
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