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U.S. base at center of Nago poll

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

In a contest with major implications for both Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Japan’s military ties with the United States, campaigning for the Jan. 19 Nago mayoral election officially kicked off Sunday, with relocation of the U.S. Marine base at Futenma, in central Ginowan, to Nago’s Henoko district and who will benefit if it takes place, being the key issues.

In Okinawa, the contest is now also likely to decide the fate of Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima.

In an unprecedented move, the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly, which is in the hands of the opposition, passed a nonbinding resolution Friday advising Nakaima to resign after he broke a campaign pledge to seek relocation of Futenma outside Okinawa by approving a central government landfill application needed to build the replacement base at Henoko.

The assembly also called on Tokyo to close Futenma and abandon the Henoko relocation plan.

The Nago election pits incumbent Mayor Susumu Inamine, 68, a staunch opponent of the Henoko plan, against Bunshin Suematsu, 65, who favors the base. Inamine has the support of most of the national opposition parties. Suematsu is strongly backed by Abe’s government.

Following Nakaima’s decision, both candidates made their positions clear.

“I will keep my promise not to build a new base on either the land or sea of Henoko,” Inamine vowed, saying he will demand that the relocation plan be revised if he is re-elected.

“The governor’s decision weighs heavy on the future direction of Nago. It’s necessary to put an end to the debate (over Henoko),” Suematsu told local reporters.

One of the keys to the election is how much support Suematsu gets from the Okinawan Liberal Democratic Party. A former Okinawa prefectural assemblyman, Suematsu served on a committee in charge of U.S. base issues. He was always Tokyo’s choice. But some in the local LDP chapter, even those fundamentally in favor of the Henoko plan, worry he could be a weak negotiator with Tokyo and too anxious to acquiesce to central government demands.

Inamine, by contrast, is now backed by traditional local and national opposition parties and anti-base voters. He may also get support from New Komeito supporters.

How much momentum Inamine receives from the resolution calling for Nakaima’s resignation is also a factor. The governor has repeatedly insisted he never actually opposed the Henoko plan, per se, but is convinced it will be extremely difficult to carry out in a reasonable time frame due to local opposition.

However, on Friday he indicated he will not resign and said he wants to continue working on reducing the overall U.S. base burden in Okinawa and securing central government funding for public works projects and other forms of development.

Abe told Nakaima on Dec. 25 that Tokyo will provide ¥346 billion in fiscal 2014 for development assistance and ¥300 billion annually between fiscal 2015 and fiscal 2021, a total of nearly ¥2.5 trillion.