Okinawa’s sole LDP lawmaker, now a Futenma foe, is returned

by Eric Johnston

OSAKA — Okinawa voters returned the prefecture’s only Liberal Democratic Party Diet member, Aiko Shimajiri, to the Upper House in a contest closely watched by Tokyo and Washington for its connection with U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

Campaigning under the slogan “Changing politics from the kitchen,” the 45-year-old Shimajiri won Sunday with 258,946 votes, while her main challenger, Hiroji Yamashiro, 57, an independent supported by the Social Democratic Party, ended up with 215,690 votes.

Tadayuki Iju, 59, who was supported by the Japanese Communist Party, received a little more than 58,000 votes.

The Democratic Party of Japan opted not to field a candidate in Okinawa amid strong public outcry against the party after the May decision by then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama to keep the Futenma base in the prefecture, reneging on a pledge to do otherwise.

Even though it was the LDP that originally agreed in 2006 to relocate Futenma, now in Ginowan, farther north on Okinawa Island to Nago’s Henoko coast by 2014, Shimajiri campaigned by opposing the May 28 agreement between the DPJ-led government and the U.S. to do just that.

“The people of Nago made their voice clear in the January election when they elected an antibase mayor. It’s no use trying to move the base to Henoko when there is no local agreement,” Shimajiri told Okinawan media Monday morning.

Antibase activists, however, said that because the LDP’s prefectural chapter opposes the May 28 agreement, Shimajiri had little choice but to follow suit.

“It’s not a question of whether she can be trusted when she says she opposes Futenma’s relocation. It’s that her policy has to be in line with the prefectural chapter. Otherwise, she’d have to resign,” said Hiroshi Ashitomi, a Henoko-based antibase activist.

While tapping into Okinawan anger over the Futenma agreement, Shimajiri also spent a good deal of the campaign focusing on ways to improve the local employment situation and revitalize the economy. This message went over particularly well in Naha and in the southern part of the prefecture, where there are fewer military bases and facilities than in the central and northern part of the island.

“The unemployment situation, especially for younger people in Okinawa, is one of the worst in the nation, and finding jobs by reviving the economy through increased tourism and the promotion of new industries was of great concern to all voters, who are worried about their lifestyles more than anything else,” said Keiichi Hara, a spokesman for Shimajiri.

But what, if anything, Shimajiri’s victory means for the immediate future of Okinawa politics related to Futenma is unclear. The Nago assembly election takes place in September, and while most of its ranks currently oppose the transfer of Futenma to Henoko, that might change after the poll.

Asked if Shimajiri would then switch her position and support the transfer if most of the Nago assembly agree, both Ashitomi and Hara said the will of the Nago residents as a whole was expressed when they elected base opponent Susumu Inamine as mayor.