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Nago race now down to just two candidates

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

January’s Nago mayoral election is now a two-man race after ex-Mayor Yoshikazu Shimabukuro ended his bid and threw his support behind Bunshin Suematsu, a Liberal Democratic Party prefectural assembly member heavily backed by Tokyo.

A pro-base candidate, Suematsu is being challenged by current Mayor Susumu Inamine, who opposes the plan to build an airstrip on the coast of the city’s Henoko district to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. Shimabukuro also wants the new base built, and his candidacy had threatened to split the pro-base vote, to Inamine’s advantage.

The deal for Shimabukuro to exit the race was brokered Wednesday by two senior LDP politicians and former Defense Ministry heads, Fukushiro Nukaga and Gen Nakatani. Aiko Shimajiri, an LDP Upper House member representing Okinawa, was also involved.

Shimabukuro lost to Inamine in the 2010 election. But he remained an influential behind-the-scenes political fixer and enjoyed particularly close connections with the Defense Ministry’s Okinawa Defense Bureau. However, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, worried he was too divisive a figure in Nago, had been pressuring him to merge his campaign with Suematsu’s out of fear of splitting the pro-base vote.

With Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima expected to formally approve Friday the central government’s application to begin filling in offshore areas at Henoko to accommodate the new base’s runways, Shimabukuro, who ran as a strong, vocal supporter of the project, bowed out.

“It was agreed (by Abe and Nakaima) to actively promote (the Futenma base) relocation to Henoko,” Shimabukuro, who officially informed his supporters Thursday he was quitting, said in explaining his decision.

The decision by the Abe government to ensure Okinawa as a whole receives at least ¥300 billion annually for the next eight years, under the Okinawa revitalization plan, also played a role in Shimabukuro’s withdrawal. Much of the funds will be used for projects like a second runway at Naha airport and the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, as well as a light rail system. But a portion will also go toward nonbase-related economic revitalization projects in northern Okinawa Island.

Despite Shimabukuro’s exit, Suematsu faces a tough campaign.