Base moderate elected Nago mayor

by Eric Johnston

NAGO, Okinawa Pref. — Voters here chose continuity Sunday over change and placed promises of economic prosperity over concerns about a new U.S. military base as Yoshikazu Shimabukuro, a ruling coalition-backed candidate and the handpicked successor of former Mayor Tateo Kishimoto, headed for victory in the mayoral election.

In a contest closely watched not only by Nago voters but also the prefectural and central governments, as well as the United States, media exit polls Sunday night showed Shimabukuro was the winner.

A little less than 75 percent of Nago’s roughly 43,000 eligible voters turned out, a 3 percent drop compared with 2002 that was blamed mostly on rainy weather.

The main issue in the campaign was the planned relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station in central Okinawa to a yet-to-be-built artificial island off Henoko, on the eastern side of Nago.

After nine years of deadlocked negotiations due to local opposition, Japan and the United States agreed in October on the new site.

But angry at what they said was a lack of proper consultation by the central government, Kishimoto and Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine immediately declared that they were opposed to the agreement.

All three mayoral candidates began their campaigns by announcing they, too, were opposed to the relocation agreement. But the emphasis of each campaign was different.

Munehiro Gakiya, a six-term member of the city council who had the backing of the Japan Communist Party and other opposition parties, and Yoshitami Oshiro, a seven-term council member who was supported by the most vocal antibase activists, repeatedly said they not only opposed the October agreement but also any plan to bring Futenma to the Nago area.

Shimabukuro, on the other hand, said little about Futenma during his campaign, spending far more time promising to would work hard to improve the local economy. He indicated that if there were certain revisions to the current relocation agreement, he might be willing to drop his opposition.

While neither Shimabukuro nor former Kishimoto have any official proposals for revision, a group of Nago business leaders, led by the head of Higashi Kaihatsu, a local construction company with close connections to both Kishimoto and Shimabukuro, has proposed building the replacement for Futenma approximately 800 meters to the south of its current proposed location to reduce noise concerns in the area, one of the main complaints.