OSAKA — In an election with major implications for Japan-U.S. relations, voters in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, will head to the polls Jan. 24 to either re-elect a mayor who supports relocating the Futenma air base nearby or install a challenger who wants the base out of the prefecture and, preferably, out of Japan.
But while discussion outside Nago, especially among policymakers in Tokyo and Washington, focuses on the geopolitical implications of the election, for the candidates and voters the question is simple: What does hosting, or not hosting, a base mean for the town’s social and economic prosperity?
A decade ago, in a surprise move widely seen as a reward for agreeing to have Henoko serve as the site for the airfield to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Nago won the right to host the 2000 Group of Eight summit.
Officials in both Nago and Tokyo who supported relocating Futenma there told local voters that the G8 summit was the beginning of a new age of economic prosperity for northern Okinawa Island, which is less developed than the more crowded southern part of the island where Naha and Ginowan are located.
The summit came and went. But entrenched local opposition in both Nago and Okinawa overall to the new base remained, preventing construction.
In following years, voters sent mixed messages about whether they wanted it built.
Plebiscites as well as numerous opinion polls indicated a majority of Nago residents opposed building a new base at Camp Schwab on the coast of Henoko. But the 1998, 2002 and 2006 mayoral elections were won by candidates in favor of taking in Futenma’s operations.
“Nago residents were worried that if they elected an antibase mayor, especially with the Liberal Democratic Party in power, it would strain relations with Tokyo and mean less financial support for the region, which is heavily dependent on government subsidies,” said Hiroshi Ashitomi, an antibase activist.
But economic prosperity has been hard to come by. In central Nago, many businesses are closed.
Susumu Inamine, a former city official who is running against incumbent Yoshikazu Shimabukuro, opposes relocating the base there.
However, his campaign strategy is to focus on Nago’s economic plight and reassure voters he can help secure development funds from Tokyo that are not related to base construction.
“Under Shimabukuro, bankruptcies have risen and 23 percent of stores in downtown Nago are now vacant, while unemployment stands at 12.5 percent,” Inamine told supporters last week.
State minister for Okinawa Seiji Maehara “has announced that northern Okinawa will receive seven billion yen in special development funds, money that is not linked to a new base,” Inamine added.
In addition, Inamine has promised that if elected he will reduce the number of vice mayors from two to one, saying this would save taxpayers ¥100 million in wages and expenses over four years.
Shimabukuro, who hired a second vice mayor, said the extra manpower was needed to coordinate base relocation negotiations involving Nago and the prefectural and central governments.
Shimabukuro is attempting to persuade voters that the Futenma move is still doable, that government funding for northern Okinawa Island can still go ahead even under the Democratic Party of Japan-led government, and charged that Inamine is a hypocrite for switching his position on the base issue.
“When Inamine was working for the city, he did not voice opposition to the Nago plan. Now, when he’s running for mayor, he suddenly announces he’s opposed,” Shimabukuro told Okinawa media earlier this month.
Inamine has been officially endorsed by all of the ruling parties as well as the Japanese Communist Party, a major change from 2006, when two opposition candidates split the vote.
Shimabukuro, who won the 2006 election with the official endorsement of the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, is only being supported by them in this election.
The mayor has the support of many local construction companies and related businesses that hope to become involved with building the new base and the surrounding civil engineering projects that will be required to support it.
Inamine’s economic vision focuses on turning northern Okinawa Island into a center for agriculture, environmental tourism and light industry, and he has the support of the DPJ and its coalition allies, the Social Democratic Party and Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party).
However, the election is still likely to be close.
In 2006, Shimabukuro won with 16,764 votes, while the two opposition candidates together collected 15,383 votes. Voter turnout was about 74 percent, and expectations are that the turnout Jan. 24 will be just as high if not higher.