In a move that could further complicate efforts by the central government to move the U.S. Futenma base from Ginowan to Henoko in northern Okinawa, Naha Mayor Takeshi Onaga, 63, has suggested he will run for run for governor in November.
Despite being a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, Onaga, along with 11 other LDP members in the Naha Municipal Assembly, oppose moving U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the Henoko district in Nago.
On Thursday, Naha’s LDP members, who form the largest faction in the Naha assembly, announced they would back Onaga, saying that the majority of Okinawans oppose the long-stalled Henoko relocation plan.
But the move by Onaga and his supporters has upset local LDP plans for the election and threatens to split a party already racked by internal dissent over the decision in December by the current governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, to approve a central government request to carry out land reclamation work for the project in waters off Henoko. This represented a major step forward toward completing the offshore replacement base for Futenma.
Nakaima has come under intense criticism from opposition members in the prefectural assembly and local LDP members who have long opposed the move. Many in Okinawa doubted that he would stand for a third term, given his age (he would be nearly 80 by the time a third term ends), and the controversy over giving the green light to the Henoko project.
However, Nakaima announced last month he was interested in running for re-election. On most issues besides Henoko, he and Onaga are in agreement. For his part, Nakaima insists that, as long as Tokyo keeps its word to close the base in the next five years, Henoko will not be a factor in the November election.
“As long as the central government sticks to its word and responds (to closing the base in five years), rather than becoming a point of contention, it will be something that is moving toward a solution,” Nakaima said last week.
An Onaga-Nakaima race, however, would guarantee that the November gubernatorial election will be about Henoko. While it is still unclear whether the Social Democratic Party of Japan, the Japan Communist Party and their traditional anti-base supporters will back a separate candidate, it could mean a close race should they rally behind Onaga.
That, in turn, would create worries in Tokyo, and likely force Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and senior officials to campaign on behalf of Nakaima and try to convince Okinawan voters they will honor Nakaima’s promise to close Futenma in five years and possibly promise new incentives if Nakaima is re-elected.