For three days last month, Ayako Nishimura and hundreds of students, pacifists, leftists and religious groups took their banners and bullhorns to the port of Yokosuka in Kanagawa Prefecture.

Their target was the Aegis battleship Kirishima, which the Koizumi government had controversially agreed to send to the Indian Ocean as rearguard support for U.S. forces.

Despite injuries and arrests in scuffles with police, the demonstrators, whose activities were reported widely in foreign media dispatches from Tokyo, failed to stop the destroyer sailing out of port at dawn on Dec. 17, dogged by small boats full of screaming protesters.

Front-page newspaper pictures across the country the next day showed the much smaller group of Hinomaru-waving supporters sending the ship off with not a protester in sight.

Were the media simply reflecting the public mood? An Asahi Shimbun poll published the same day found that 48 percent of respondents opposed the ship’s dispatch, with 40 percent in favor. Japanese support for war in Iraq is even weaker, with an overwhelming 65 percent against any attack. Nishimura says the media blackout is nothing unusual. “It’s maddening, but that’s the world we live in.”

Makoto Oda, who has been a fixture of Japan’s antiwar scene since the Vietnam War, is more forthright. “Japan is pathetic at the moment,” says the veteran campaigner. “There is opposition to the U.S. and Japan’s support, but the media is a disgrace. They’re happy to talk about antiwar protests in London, but ignore us. It makes me angry.”

Nishimura, an independent local councilor, whose father was a senior Japanese military officer, keeps an office overlooking Sagamihara U.S. base in Kanagawa to remind herself of her transformation from housewife to warrior for peace.

During the Vietnam War, battered tanks covered in blood were rolled through the base for repair before being sent back to the conflict. “I realized then that Japan was not neutral at all. We were actively participating in the war.”

Nishimura’s political baptism of fire came when she and others sat down on roads around Sagamihara to stop the tanks from moving. When the war ended, and the bases that take up 5 percent of the total land in her crowded constituency stayed, she put herself up for office to fight for their removal. “You could fit 80 Yokohama Stadiums in Sagamihara Base alone, and 90 in Zama Camp. That land could be used for hospitals, schools and homes.”

Japan’s role as America’s unsinkable Pacific aircraft carrier of course weathered the Vietnam storm and today, despite some of the biggest anti-U.S. protests across the rest of Asia since the 1970s, America’s 47,000 troops and hundreds of facilities in Japan look safer than ever. The chance that the Japanese might throw them out, as the Filipinos did in 1992, looks very remote indeed.

For Nishimura and others who think the whole region would be a lot more stable if they did, and who worry about Japan’s strengthening ties with an increasingly hawkish Washington, this is a depressing state of affairs.

Chalmers Johnson, a veteran Japan specialist and author of “Blowback,” for example, who believes Japanese support for the current U.S. position is “lunatic,” laughs off the idea that the bases keep the peace.

“There is no military threat,” he says. “China has turned decisively to the commercial exploitation of the rest of East Asia. Japan and Taiwan have recognized this and are adjusting to it. North Korea is a failed regime playing a desperately bad hand as well as it can, but the cause of this problem is the Bush administration. There was a perfectly good agreement in place after Kim Dae Jung went north and started to open up to end this hopeless impasse. U.S. troops are much more comparable to the Russian troops in East Germany who just didn’t want to go home.”

Given all this, Chalmers wonders why Japan doesn’t just say no.

“South Korea is pushing the Americans hard right now and it’s very impressive,” he says, “but the Japanese are not Koreans. The Japanese live in a fake, ersatz democracy and they’re just too safe and happy with what they have.”

Nevertheless, to tag along with Nishimura and other antiwar activists is to realize that opposition to the bases and what they see as Japan’s current drift toward militarism still simmers beneath the surface here. Mostly it falls under the radar of the national media, although a rocket attack on Zama Camp in December made some front pages and was a reminder that the opposition can be violent.

Since Bush and his allies began their war on terrorism, however, the media have mostly chosen to overlook some of the largest demonstrations since the Vietnam War, including two Tokyo peace rallies — one 25,000-strong — during the Afghan conflict, and a series of mass protests last December.

For Nishimura, the current situation is reminiscent of the 1930s when many felt deep unease about where the country was headed but faced with a government determined to get its way, couldn’t stop it.

“Opposition to the war in Afghanistan and to this new war is ignored. Most people support Article Nine (the so-called peace clause of Japan’s constitution that bans the ‘threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes’) but that’s ignored too. Japan is being prepared for war by the government and under pressure from the U.S. That’s what the current debate about emergency laws is for, destroying the Peace Constitution.”

Although Nishimura is far from confident she can stop war in Iraq, let alone achieve her long-term aim of closing the bases, she is once again revving up a campaign she has run many times before.

She believes war with Iraq will start soon, when she will again be in Yokosuka with her bullhorn.

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