Defense chats in Okinawa said lobbying

by Masami Ito

Staff Writer

The head of the Defense Ministry’s Okinawa bureau gave two “lectures” urging ministry officials and their family members living in Ginowan to vote in an upcoming mayoral election, indirectly suggesting they support a candidate backing the government’s contentious plan to relocate the U.S. Futenma base, the ministry revealed Thursday.

Okinawa Defense Bureau chief Ro Manabe has come under fierce attack since the allegations emerged. His accusers say he used two briefings to influence voting for the Feb. 12 election. Ginowan is the host city for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which some have dubbed “the most dangerous base in Japan.”

The opposition parties are accusing Manabe of illegal government “interference” in an election and pressing his boss, Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka, to fire him.

Manabe held two lectures that highlighted the differences between the two mayoral candidates, according to a summary of the talks compiled by the ministry.

The summary quotes Manabe as saying one of the candidates, Yoichi Iha, “is against relocating the (air base) within the prefecture and is demanding its immediate closure and return (of the land to Okinawa).”

But the bureau chief also said Atsushi Sakima, the second candidate, will “firmly prevent (Futenma) from becoming (a fixture) and will strongly promote removing the danger (posed by the base) and the return and reuse of the land as early as possible,” the summary said.

Manabe also said that both candidates are calling for the air base to be moved outside Okinawa, the summary said.

Manabe is also quoted as saying that he “was not in a position to tell the officials to vote for a specific candidate,” and that he also warned officials to be careful to maintain an impartial stance.

“We must be politically neutral when it comes to elections, so please pay attention to make sure that you do not violate, or are not viewed as violating, the Self-Defense Forces Law or other related laws,” Manabe was quoted as saying. “Please also be careful when consulting your relatives (over the Ginowan vote).”

But by explaining the differences in the two candidates’ policies, Manabe made it clear to the two audiences which one would be supportive of the government’s relocation plan for the base.

During a Lower House Budget Committee meeting Thursday afternoon, Defense Minister Tanaka apologized and vowed to take measures to prevent similar incidents in the future.

“Ministry officials are public servants who need to be neutral and fair, and I will ensure that I will guide and supervise them so that they are not tainted with (similar) suspicions,” said Tanaka, who could decide what to do about Manabe as early as Friday.

Manabe, meanwhile, was summoned to appear before the Lower House Budget Committee Friday afternoon and is expected to be assailed by opposition lawmakers over his perceived interference in the local election.

“I heard that the ministry is currently examining the facts and will judge the matter. I intend to accept whatever punishment the ministry’s decides is appropriate,” Manabe said after arriving in Tokyo on Thursday.

The issue came to light this week when Japanese Communist Party member Seiken Akamine told the Budget Committee he had an email in which the Okinawa Defense Bureau asked for a list of officials who currently live in Ginowan or who have relatives living in the city.

After an internal investigation, the ministry found that Manabe had held two 10-minute lectures, on Jan. 23 and 24, that were attended by a total of 68 officials out of the 80 listed by the Okinawa bureau. Manabe also has admitted holding a similar lecture in 2010 for an election in the city of Nago, the government’s chosen site for the relocated base when he was also head of the Okinawa bureau.