OSAKA – Okinawa Defense Bureau chief Ro Manabe’s alleged attempts to influence the Feb. 12 Ginowan mayoral election by indirectly suggesting that ministry officials and their families vote for Atsushi Sakima over Yoichi Iha have angered, but not surprised, Okinawans, who say such interference by Tokyo in local politics is nothing new.
Ginowan is home to U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which Tokyo and Washington want to relocate to Henoko farther north on Okinawa Island.
Both Iha, a former mayor of Ginowan who resigned in 2010 to run for governor, and Sakima, a prefectural assembly member, have said they oppose relocation within Okinawa.
But Sakima, backed by the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, once supported the Henoko move, and Manabe is viewed to have allegedly tried to pressure officials and their families in Ginowan to cast their votes for him.
Iha has support from political parties against the U.S. military presence in Okinawa, including the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party.
Manabe has said he did not urge the officials to vote for a specific candidate.
“This kind of interference from the central government in local politics has happened before. In addition to the 2010 Nago mayoral election, central government officials also went around Nago before the 1997 referendum on whether to accept the Henoko relocation, passing out pamphlets,” said Hiroshi Ashitomi, an antibase activist in Henoko.
Manabe’s attempts to influence the election, Ashitomi said, may have been partly due to events over the past month or so, including delivery of an environmental impact assessment from the Defense Ministry to the Okinawa Prefectural Government at the end of last year.
In addition, opponents of the Henoko relocation have been stepping up pressure on U.S. lawmakers. A group of antibase activists, including Ashitomi, and Diet members opposed to the move, went to Washington last month and visited a number of congressional representatives.
They also tied up with American antibase activists to conduct a U.S. media campaign that included an ad in The Washington Post.
Next week, Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine, who opposes the relocation, will visit Washington and meet with lawmakers and Japan experts.
“We will continue to deliver our message to Washington and work with American antibase groups to put pressure on the U.S. Congress,” Ashitomi said.
In Ginowan, Toshio Takahashi, spokesman for a group of local residents who plan to file a lawsuit in March against the central government over noise at Futenma, said Manabe’s actions simply confirmed what had previously been rumor and innuendo.
“There have always been rumors and speculation that the central government was interfering with Ginowan elections by pressuring residents to vote for the Liberal Democratic Party candidates. They certainly did so in past elections, especially in the years immediately following Okinawa’s reversion to Japan, so while people are angry at Manabe, and Tokyo, I’m not sure if they’re too surprised,” Takahashi said.
The effect on the poll is unclear: “This is probably going to be a close election, and while Manabe was caught, there are lots of private firms in Ginowan, small and large, that are doing the same things he did. So it’s not clear local anger towards Manabe or Tokyo will lead to more votes for Iha,” Takahashi said.