NAHA – Atsushi Sakima, a former member of the Okinawa prefectural assembly, won Sunday’s mayoral election in Ginowan amid controversy over a U.S. military base issue.
Sakima, 47, beat former Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha, 60, in the closely contested race in which the top issue was the Japan-U.S. plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station from the city to Nago in northern Okinawa.
The victory by Sakima, who was backed by Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima as well as the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party and its ally the New Komeito party, marked the first time in 26 years for the conservative bloc to regain control of the city administration.
Iha was supported mainly by the smaller opposition Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party.
“I will take a firm stand against (the Futenma facility) becoming permanent in its present location,” Sakima said after winning the election. He added he wants to “start the negotiation on the return (of the land) as soon as possible.”
Sakima garnered 22,612 votes, while Iha received 21,712. Voter turnout was 63.90 percent, 3.23 percentage points lower than in the previous mayoral election in 2010. There were 69,926 eligible voters in Ginowan as of Sunday, according to the city election board.
During the campaign, both candidates called for the U.S. Marine base, which occupies a quarter of the city’s total land area, to be moved out of the prefecture.
Sakima is seen as being more soft on the issue as he had formerly accepted relocating the base within Okinawa, putting priority on the early return of the land currently used by the base. Iha, who served as Ginowan mayor for seven and a half years until 2010, is strongly opposed to the heavy U.S. military presence in Okinawa and has even questioned the effectiveness of the Japan-U.S. security alliance.
But the future of the planned relocation of Futenma to the northern Okinawa city of Nago is still unclear as Sakima, like Okinawa Gov. Nakaima, insists on moving it outside the prefecture.
According to Kyodo News exit polls that covered 739 voters at 16 polling stations across the city, a total of 61.7 percent said “elsewhere in Japan outside Okinawa” and “overseas” as a possible relocation site for the Futenma facility. Only 10.3 percent said “Henoko district” in the coastal area of Nago, the site stipulated in the latest Japan-U.S. accord reached in May 2010.
Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine, who was elected to the post in January 2010, is also strongly opposed to the Japan-U.S. plan to move the Futenma facility to his city. And a majority of the members elected to the Nago city assembly in last September’s election also oppose the plan.
Sunday’s election in Ginowan was held to choose the successor to Takeshi Asato, who resigned as mayor for health reasons.
The polling was held amid a local backlash over a senior Defense Ministry official’s alleged meddling in the election. That allegation dealt a fresh blow to the central government’s efforts to push forward the long-stalled relocation of Futenma within Okinawa despite strong local opposition.
The election was held just four days after the Japanese and U.S. governments announce a new realignment plan for the U.S. military in Japan, in which the two governments agreed to proceed with the transfer of Marines in Okinawa to Guam, separate from the relocation of the Futenma base within the prefecture. Under the 2006 accord, the two events were to occur in tandem.
The revised plan instantly sparked concern in Okinawa that the change could lead to the marine base in Ginowan becoming permanent.
The DPJ did not field a candidate or officially endorse any of the candidates as the party is seeking to relocate the U.S. military base within Okinawa in line with the Japan-U.S. accord.