For an entire year, 60-year-old Kumiko Onaga slept in a tent across the street from a US military base on Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost island. In the middle of the night, when trucks carrying construction material approached the entrance gate of the base, she jumped out of her sleeping bag and tried to block the vehicles.
Then, each morning, she drove home, showered and went to work as one of her town’s few women city council members.
"People know me as 'The Sleeping Bag Councilwoman,'" Onaga says with a smile, adding that more people know her by her nickname than her real name.
Onaga and others on Okinawa have long objected to the relocation of a contentious US Marine Corps base to the remote fishing village of Henoko on the northern part of the island. Part of the plan involves the construction of military runways in the coral-filled coastal waters next to the base.
Elderly women like Onaga have become outspoken critics of the US military presence on the island. Okinawa is home to roughly 70 percent of the land in Japan devoted to US military bases, but has less than 1 percent of the nation's landmass, angering many Okinawans who say it’s an unfair burden.
Under a treaty that dates back to the end of World War II, US forces defend Japan from rival nations, such as North Korea and China. Of the approximately 50,000 uniformed US service members in Japan, an estimated 27,000 are stationed on Okinawa, a strategic location in the Asia Pacific region.
But, over the years, a string of rapes by US servicemen on Okinawa, along with environmental, noise and safety concerns, has increased anti-base sentiments on the island.
Onaga says women are a big part of the protest movement because they want to protect the future of Okinawa’s children. “We’re a tiny island, and the community and bonds are strong here,” she says. “Because of this, I think Okinawan women feel that they all collectively share the responsibility of raising our children.”
After Onaga retired from her longtime job as a sports instructor, she turned her attention to local politics. She won a city council seat on her second try and later helped start an all-women’s group that campaigned for her town’s staunchly anti-base mayor.
Onaga is one of only three women council members in her city and says there are “alarmingly few” women legislators. In a culture where women are often expected to be caregivers, Onaga says she is lucky her husband is equally involved at home, and he helps take care of her mother. “I can devote myself to being a councilwoman, and for that I’m grateful,” she says.
Onaga is a charismatic, engaging public speaker on the front lines of the protest movement. She coordinates busloads of people going to demonstrations across the island, cooks food for large gatherings of protesters, and is often handed the microphone at rallies. In the beginning, she was terrified to even participate.
“I’d never taken part in any civil movement before,” she says. “I was even scared to just do a sit-in because I wasn’t used to it.” At many demonstrations outside military bases, Japanese riot police physically lift protesters by their arms and legs, and carry them away. Once a complete novice, Onaga now describes how police pulled her out of protests in Henoko, and on one occasion, even injured her.
“In one late-night protest, the riot police formed a human fence to block us as construction material was transported into the military base,” she says. “The police hit me in the back and broke my rib. It took a month and a half to heal, and it was very scary and painful.”
Despite this, she remains confident. "Even though there are moments when I worry as if I might get arrested, I believe that protesting is freedom of expression, so I don’t think that will happen," Onaga says. "I’m not breaking any laws, and I’m not violent. Only the riot police are the ones being violent."
Her views have also brought unwanted attention from right-wing groups in Okinawa. “I get a lot of abuse and threats online,” Onaga says. “[They] wrote so many different things about me and really attacked me. The very first time they uploaded something about me, I did get scared, but I wasn’t going to let it get me down or stop me from protesting."
Onaga and other anti-base islanders say the military bases were forced on the Okinawan people after World War II. The US gained control of Okinawa during the war and maintained that control until 1972, long after the rest of Japan regained its sovereignty. Over those nearly 30 years, the US built a number of military bases.
While Onaga acknowledges it’s not practical to close all the bases on her island, she worries about how the relocation of a major Marine Corps base to her area could ultimately transform her way of life.
“Okinawa has the treasure of nature, the ocean and mountains,” Onaga says. “People like me don’t have many years left to live, so we won’t be as affected as the children. It’s the future generations who will be greatly burdened with all the damage.”
While opposition from protesters and local leaders successfully halted construction in Henoko last year, Japan’s Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of the nation’s central government, which is pushing for the base relocation. Work resumed offshore last week with Japan’s Defense Ministry dropping concrete blocks along Henoko’s coast in advance of the land reclamation project.
Onaga says the government has started transporting material offshore, rather than on land, to avoid the protesters. Nevertheless, she and hundreds of others are back on the front lines, and she plans to expand the demonstrations. She was impressed with the massive scale of recent protests across the US, but says American courts have protected the people, unlike what’s happening in Okinawa.
“Our own justice system is not on our side,” she says, referring to the Supreme Court decision upholding Japan’s government's decision.
“We have to stop accepting the base as a status quo,” Onaga says. “We have been protesting every day with the belief our actions will definitely stop them. We’re not fighting because we think we might be able to block them. We know we will.”
“I won’t be beaten. Up until I collapse, I will keep on going,” Onaga says. “Even if I do collapse, I’ll keep raising my voice. That’s how strong my will is.”
Sonia Narang reported in Japan with support from the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).