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Swing voters asked to defend Ryukyu spirit or cash in on aid

Nago voters cast ballots on base fate

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Nago voters headed to the polls Sunday in a mayoral campaign dominated by the issue of whether to accept or reject construction of a replacement facility in the Henoko district for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

Local media polls continued to show incumbent Mayor Susumu Inamine, 68, a staunch opponent of putting any base in Henoko, leading his pro-base rival, Bunshin Suematsu, 65, who is strongly backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government and the national chapter of the Liberal Democratic Party.

Suematsu’s campaign mounted a frantic last-ditch effort Friday and Saturday to secure the votes of the nearly 20 percent of the electorate who, as of last week, remained uncommitted.

Since Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima approved a central government application for landfill work at Henoko last month after Tokyo agreed to provide Okinawa with ¥346 billion in development funds in fiscal 2014, and promised ¥300 billion annually until fiscal 2021, Nago has been divided between those who claim the governor unilaterally sold the city’s future to Tokyo, and those who saw the decision as inevitable and, hopefully, a chance to boost the local economy.

In the final hours, though, candidates were focused on last week’s surprise announcement by LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba that Tokyo will provide ¥50 billion in new funding for Nago if voters chose Suematsu.

“The money can be used for improving the municipal social welfare system by building a new general hospital and a combined elementary and junior high school. We can say goodbye to the long-running standoff between the base protesters and the prefectural and national governments,” Suematsu told his supporters Saturday night.

However, much of that money is expected to go toward projects in the more populated southern and central parts of the main island, where Naha and cities like Ginowan and Okinawa are prompting criticism in Nago that more money is needed in the northern part of the island.

“The (¥50 billion) is clearly an attempt by these Yamato politicians to buy off the Ryukyu citizens of Nago. They do not decide Nago’s future — the people of Nago do,” Inamine told his supporters the same evening, invoking the ancient names of Japan and Okinawa.

Inamine is largely backed by the powerful anti-base movement as well as Okinawa conservatives who don’t like Suematsu or are angry at Ishiba. A good portion of Suematsu’s support comes from Nago construction firms like the powerful Higashi Kaihatsu, as well as some resort hotel owners and related businesses.

Some fishermen in parts of Henoko also planned to vote for Suematsu in anticipation of receiving huge amounts of central and local government money in return for giving up the rights to their fishing grounds in order to build the base.

As of December, there were about 46,600 registered voters in Nago. A total of 15,835 cast their ballots in early voting last week, and voter turnout Sunday afternoon was just under 24 percent. In the 2010 election, the voter turnout rate was 44.6 percent.