NAHA, Okinawa Pref. — It was more than just the U.S. military bases. As Okinawans went to the polls Sunday to vote in the gubernatorial election, the local economy was also on their minds.
The winner, Hirokazu Nakaima, emphasized economic revival through massive investments in construction and information technology during the campaign.
While Nakaima has indicated that he is open to accepting relocation of the U.S. Marines Futenma airfield inside Okinawa, his main contender, Keiko Itokazu, has repeatedly opposed creation of a new U.S. military facility in the prefecture and called for its relocation overseas.
Nakaima was backed by the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, while Itokazu was supported by the opposition camp and local anti-U.S. base forces.
Along Kokusai Street in Naha on Sunday, as tourists from mainland Japan shopped in the dozens of stores selling Okinawan goods, the first priority among the merchants was reviving the local economy.
“Tourism is up these past few years, but there is still a lack of really good hotels in Naha. I’m hoping the new governor makes attracting first-class resort hotels to the Naha area one of his top priorities,” said Sayako Ikejima, who runs a store specializing in “awamori,” a locally distilled spirit. She said she was voting for Nakaima.
Unlike central and northern Okinawa, where there are major concentrations of U.S. bases, the roar of fighter jets overhead is almost never heard on Kokusai Street. But shopkeepers say the U.S. military presence is still a problem, one they hope the new governor will tackle.
“The marines who come into my shop rarely cause problems, but they do scare away Japanese customers. It would be far better for my business, and for the other businesses on Kokusai Street that rely on tourism from Japan and Asia, if there were fewer bases on Okinawa,” said Yoshihiko Kinjo, a nightclub manager who said he was voting for Itokazu.
In Nago, support for Nakaima appeared to be strongest in the western part of the city, where the local government office and the business district are located. Support for Itokazu was stronger in and around the Henoko area farther to the east.
“But even those in Nago opposed to the relocation of Futenma to Henoko are worried about angering the central government. Northern Okinawa remains economically underdeveloped compared to Naha, and people are torn between not wanting the base and wanting the central government subsidies that come with hosting it,” said Yasuhiro Miyagi, an antibase activist.