OSAKA — With Sunday’s win in Nago, Okinawa, by a mayoral candidate who is opposed to relocating the Futenma air base to the city’s Henoko district, calls to revise the 2006 accord and relocate the facility outside the prefecture are growing, placing Tokyo and Washington under increased pressure to pick another site.
With the U.S. insisting on adherence to the 2006 agreement, and with officials, policy experts and some media in Tokyo and Washington warning that the issue is damaging the bilateral relationship, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is now under intense pressure to decide a site before his self-imposed May deadline.
Susumu Inamine, 64, a former chairman of Nago’s board of education, won a closely fought contest with incumbent Yoshikazu Shimabukuro, 63, who had earlier voiced his willingness to accept the terms of the 2006 accord.
Inamine took 17,950 votes to Shimabukuro’s 16,362.
“I campaigned by promising everyone that a base wouldn’t be built near Henoko’s shore, and I want to keep that promise,” Inamine said after his victory.
Before the election, polls showed education and economic revitalization were priorities with voters. But the potential economic and social ramifications of a new base played a large role in how voters approached both issues.
Inamine, who insisted during the campaign that economic revitalization could occur without the base, was supported by the Democratic Party of Japan-led ruling bloc as well as by the Japanese Communist Party. The JCP’s past insistence on fielding its own candidate in local-level elections had often split Okinawa’s base opponents.
Inamine tapped into voter discontent by pointing out that Nago has a 12.5 percent unemployment rate, rising social welfare costs and increased bankruptcies, especially in the downtown district where many stores are shuttered.
His charge that little of the ¥100 billion in central government funding that has flowed into the Nago area since 2000 has directly benefited those not in the construction industry, along with his assurance that the DPJ-led central government will provide ¥7 billion in regional development funds not linked to accepting the base, appeared to win over voters.
Shimabukuro had the backing of the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, which made up the ruling bloc when the 2006 accord was struck. His support apparently came from Henoko-district voters who are hoping for subsidies for hosting the base as well as local general contractors hoping to get a piece of the construction.
With Inamine’s win, calls in Okinawa to move Futenma outside the prefecture grew stronger Monday morning.
Politically, all Diet members from Okinawa, the majority of the prefectural assembly, the mayor of Ginowan, where Futenma is now located, and many other municipalities now oppose building a new base in the prefecture.
Only Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima has said he’d be willing to accept the Henoko plan. But he faces a tough re-election bid in November.
On Monday, he passed the buck to Hatoyama and the central government by refusing to comment on how Inamine’s victory will effect his position.
“The problem of the bases is, 200 percent, an issue for the central government, and they should judge. Ask them,” Nakaima told reporters.
While Hatoyama has said he will make a decision by the end of May on what to do about Futenma, he faces a number of political problems.
Other locations in Okinawa, including the airfields on Shimoji or Ie islands, as well as consolidation with the U.S. Air Force base at Kadena, have been informally proposed by various politicians these past six months, but there is no agreement within his own party about what an acceptable alternative might be.
Meanwhile, his coalition partners, especially the Social Democratic Party, are demanding that Futenma be relocated outside Okinawa, if not outside Japan altogether.
Hatoyama also must deal with a United States that continues to insist on the 2006 plan, with senior officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, saying it’s the best option.
To date, the U.S. has not offered other possibilities for relocation, but some former U.S. officials who pushed hard for Futenma to be relocated to Henoko in 2006 now say it’s time for Washington to present an alternative.
“I am pessimistic there will be a positive decision on moving to Henoko. For the U.S., my advice to everybody who deals with Japan is that we’d better have a Plan B,” said former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage at a Washington symposium this month.