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Base setback denied after Nago poll

Abe, governor downplay win by Inamine, say plan still on track

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Following Sunday’s victory in the Nago mayoral election by incumbent Susumu Inamine, a staunch opponent of building a new U.S. Marine Corps base in the city’s Henoko district, a defiant central government and unrepentant Okinawa governor insisted the contentious facility would be built as scheduled.

But behind such confident rhetoric, the administrative and political barriers to completing construction of the base remain as formidable as ever. Inamine has vowed to fully exercise his authority to block municipal permits needed to finish building the partially offshore base. Newly emboldened anti-base activists have vowed to physically confront any attempts to carry out offshore construction.

Inamine won with 19,839 votes to rival candidate Bunshin Suematsu’s 15,684 votes. The turnout rate among the city’s nearly 46,600 eligible voters was 76.71 percent, virtually the same as four years ago.

In that election, Inamine squeaked by, winning the mayor’s seat by around 1,600 votes. But in Sunday’s election, he won by 4,155, giving him a stronger mandate, especially since the majority of Nago citizens also opposes the base plan.

“I will refuse all discussions based on the premise of the landfill project. I have the responsibility to protect the Nago area (and) keep it safe,” Inamine said.

Any leverage in Okinawa that Tokyo has over Inamine and the Nago Municipal Assembly is limited. Trust in Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, who granted permission for the base-related offshore fill project last month, is plummeting.

Despite Nakaima’s insistence Sunday night that he would not resign, doubts are growing he will even make it to the end of his term in November, where he was not expected to run again but to appoint a successor candidate, most likely his close friend and adviser, Kurayoshi Takara, who serves as vice governor.

“An increasing number of local governments in Okinawa are turning against Nakaima. The prefectural assembly, which also opposed his granting permission for the fill project, finishes in March. So we might see him resign and call an election right after that,” said Hiroshi Ashitomi, one of the leaders of the Nago anti-base movement.

Officials in the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are also dismissing suggestions the results in Nago will affect Henoko. Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters Monday that Okinawa had granted approval for the offshore landfill project at Henoko and that he hoped for steady progress.

But to bring about the kind of steady progress the central government envisions, which means completion of the new airbase in about nine years, Abe has two problems he must overcome. The first is to convince Washington that despite the setback in Nago, the Henoko base will be built not only as scheduled and within budget projections, but also proceed without a large public outcry or political opposition in Okinawa that could damage Japan’s relations with the U.S.

Assuring U.S. officials that Tokyo has Okinawa under control is not as easy as it once was. Over the past few years, anti-base activists and politicians in Okinawa have bypassed the prime minister’s office and the Foreign and Defense ministries by building relationships with U.S. congressional representatives, journalists, scholars and others in Washington and elsewhere who are skeptical of or oppose the Henoko replacement base outright.

In short, neither pro-base officials in Tokyo and Washington nor the so-called U.S.-Japan security village, a small band of ex-U.S. and Japanese officials who serve as unofficial consultants, control the Okinawa debate to the extent they did even in 2010, when Inamine won his first term.

Abe also faces public anger and political fallout in Okinawa, even among those who are not staunch opponents of the Henoko plan, over Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba’s efforts on behalf of Suematsu, whom the LDP strongly backed.

Less than a week before the election, Ishiba said the central government would decide what to do about Henoko. The comment was a political gift to Inamine, who pounded the message home that Nago, not Tokyo, would decide what was best for Nago.

Ishiba then showed up in Nago just three days before the election, telling voters Tokyo would give them an extra ¥50 billion if Suematsu became mayor. The move shocked and angered Okinawans across the political spectrum who charged that Tokyo was simply trying to buy off concerns about the base with “pocketbook diplomacy.” Now, Abe is likely to have to defend him in the Diet, and possibly even explain Ishiba’s actions to Washington.

“Ishiba’s comments, and his responsibility for them, will be pursued in the Diet, while a number of Okinawans, including myself, will visit Washington from Jan. 25 and hope to meet with congressional members, scholars and American anti-base activists to convey the results of Nago and our concerns,” independent Upper House Diet member Keiko Itokazu said Sunday night.