Nakaima, Iha make last pitches in Okinawa gubernatorial race

by Eric Johnston

NAHA, Okinawa Pref. — The candidates for the Okinawa gubernatorial election spent their final day on the campaign trial Saturday, telling voters their ballots represent a referendum not only on the prefecture’s future, but also the future of Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s government and Japan’s military ties with the United States.

Sunday’s election pits Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, 71, who is seeking a second term, against former Ginowan mayor Yoichi Iha, 58. While both are running without official party endorsements, Nakaima has the support of the Liberal Democratic Party’s Okinawa chapter, New Komeito and Your Party. Iha is supported by Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party), the Social Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party.

A third candidate, Tatsuro Kinjo, 46, is backed by the Happiness Realization Party and is considered a long shot.

The LDP’s headquarters in Tokyo endorsed Nakaima in the 2006 election, but Nakaima and the local chapter are opposed to the Tokyo headquarters’ stance on the plan to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the Henoko district in northern Okinawa Island. The base is currently in Ginowan.

Nakaima and the prefectural chapter now say they oppose the May agreement between Japan and the U.S. to move Futenma to Henoko, which was signed by the United States and then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who originally wanted the base to be removed from Okinawa.

The accord irked many Okinawans, who remembered a promise Hatoyama made on the way to becoming prime minister to move the base outside the prefecture.

The May accord also followed the January win of an antibase mayoral candidate in Nago, where Henoko is located.

Thus Nakaima and local LDP politicians who indicated they might accept the plan after it was agreed to by the U.S. and Japan under LDP Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2006 are instead telling voters they want it be relocated outside Okinawa.

But Nakaima has not clearly stated his opposition to the possibility that Futenma may eventually be relocated within the prefecture anyway.

Iha, by contrast, resigned as mayor of Ginowan specifically to run against Nakaima to get Futenma removed from the prefecture. A longtime opponent of both the base and the bilateral security treaty, he has said he favors replacing the treaty with a peace and friendship treaty.

With Nago’s mayor and assembly, as well as the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly, now formally opposed to moving Futenma to Henoko, and with local media polls showing 70 to 80 percent of Okinawa residents oppose the plan, Sunday’s election is being anxiously watched by Tokyo and Washington, where many hope Nakaima, who was said to be leading by a slight margin, will win and once again be persuaded to accept the Henoko plan.

In the meantime, there is little indication among Okinawan residents that Japan’s problems with China regarding the Senkaku Islands or Tuesday’s artillery exchange between North and South Korea are greatly affecting the race.

The front page stories of Okinawa’s two major newspapers Saturday were not about the Koreas or China, but on the discovery of documents containing a 1967 comment by then U.S. Secretary of State Robert McNamara that the Okinawan bases were not as necessary as Japanese thought they were.

“A lot of people in Tokyo are saying the problems with China and North Korea prove the Okinawan bases are necessary. But all it proves is that people in other parts of Japan are happy to have us bear the burden instead of them,” said Etsuko Chinen, 47, a Naha resident who said she’ll vote for Iha.

Some voters in Naha, where the U.S. military presence is much less visible than in other parts of Okinawa and where Nakaima leads Iha, were upset that Futenma has dominated local politics for so long.

“Tokyo and Washington have been talking about relocation for nearly 15 years, but nothing has happened. Clearly, the central government and the U.S. want Nakaima because they think they can convince him to accept Henoko. But whoever wins, I don’t think things will change that much, while the local economy continues to stagnate,” said Haruo Yamagi, 56, a store owner in Naha who said he will vote for Nakaima because he stands the best chance of successfully negotiating economic stimulus packages with Tokyo.