NAHA, Okinawa Pref. — The re-election of Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima on Sunday is a much-needed victory for Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s government, which clearly wanted him to win, and the United States, who saw his opponent as a threat to the entire U.S. military presence in the prefecture.
With a decade-long central government economic assistance program for Okinawa expiring in 2012, attention is shifting to how Tokyo will deal with Nakaima on extending that assistance in exchange for authorizing construction of a new U.S. base on the Henoko coast of Nago as a replacement site for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which is farther south on Okinawa Island in the city of Ginowan.
The final results showed Nakaima winning 335,708 votes to challenger Yoichi Iha’s 297,082. But any joy Tokyo and Washington experience over Nakaima’s win over Iha — one of the prefecture’s leading antibase politicians and an opponent of Japan’s security treaty with the U.S. — will be short-lived.
As Nakaima made clear following his victory Sunday evening, carrying out the May agreement to relocate Futenma to Henoko will be extremely difficult.
“Originally, I’d thought it would be inevitable to accept the Henoko plan with certain conditions. But the people of Nago clearly said no to the plan when they voted for an antibase mayor. Therefore, there is no place in Okinawa to move Futenma,” Nakaima said after his win Sunday night.
The mayor of Nago, as well as the majority of its assembly and that of the prefecture, oppose the plan. And Nakaima himself campaigned by saying he wanted Futenma out of Okinawa.
Thus very little is likely to change in the short term. But the mid- to long-term picture is less clear because of what Nakaima didn’t say in his campaign.
While Iha firmly opposed any new base in the prefecture, Nakaima merely said he would tell Tokyo that Futenma should be moved out of Okinawa, leaving room for speculation he might be open to a deal that would allow the base to be built under certain conditions.
Originally, Nakaima and his political and business supporters had indicated they would accept the relocation agreement under certain conditions, which included the support of the people of Nago and guarantees that local construction firms and other businesses would greatly benefit from the project.
Privately, few in Tokyo or on the ground in Okinawa who follow the base issue closely believe a move to Henoko will occur anytime soon, if ever, and certainly not before the original deadline of 2014 as agreed upon in 2006. Okinawan media polls Sunday showed nearly 70 percent of voters oppose the Henoko agreement.
Faced with two candidates who seemed to have the same views on Futenma, voters were then left to pick the candidate who would likely be a better negotiator with the central government for economic stimulus projects, including funding for high-tech information technology and tourism infrastructure projects designed to bring in new jobs and help revitalize the prefecture.
In 2002, Tokyo announced it would fund, for a 10-year period, various projects in Okinawa to help get the economy going. Since then, more than ¥9 trillion has been poured into developing technology and tourism in particular.
But with the end of the program coming in 2012, many voters wondered what would happen if it were not renewed, especially regarding long-desired construction projects like the second runway at Naha airport aimed at accommodating more international flights.
Local polls showed in both 2006 and in this election that reviving the local economy and making sure central government subsidies to flow was just as, if not more important, than the Futenma issue.
In the end, Nakaima’s experience in negotiating with the central government, combined with his strong support from the business community and a clear message on the economy, won over voters. Even those who were not impressed with how he guided the economy over the past four years.
“With the Liberal Democratic Party now in charge of the Upper House, the political situation in Tokyo is very unstable. I think a lot of voters went for Nakaima not because he has done a great job with the local economy but because they felt it was better to have an experienced hand who had connections in the LDP,” said Shincho Yonashiro, 77, a Naha resident who voted for the incumbent.
Iha, by contrast, spent the early part of his campaign emphasizing little else but the base issue. As mayor of Ginowan, he’d been one of Okinawa’s most visible base foes.
But even some of his supporters admitted his plans for economic recovery, which included vague promises of new, “eco-friendly” businesses, didn’t resonate with voters.
His lack of attention to economic concerns may explain why he failed to score votes in Nago, despite the endorsement of antibase Mayor Susumu Inamine and one of the strongest antibase communities in Okinawa.
Since 2000, Tokyo has pumped nearly ¥1 trillion into various development projects for Nago and northern Okinawa Island in an unsuccessful attempt to get residents to approve the replacement facility.
Nago construction firms and fishermen unions operating in the bay beside Henoko, hoping to benefit financially from the project in the form of contracts and compensation for loss of fishing grounds, had supported politicians they felt would best negotiate with the prefecture and Tokyo for those benefits. Nakaima’s campaign staff in Nago included those who were most in favor of hosting Futenma.
Finally, those who own land the U.S. military is using were also concerned about Iha’s determination to seek a base-free Okinawa without a clear and convincing plan as to how their land would generate income once the bases were gone.
According to the prefecture’s military bases division, there are about 35,000 principal owners of the land that 34 U.S. bases and installations are built on. As of 2008, these owners received about ¥78.4 billion in rent annually from Tokyo.