NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – Candidates opposed to the planned replacement base in Nago for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma held onto their majority in the Nago Municipal Assembly following Sunday’s election, clouding Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hopes to achieve the long-stalled transfer within Okinawa.
In the closely watched race seen as a prelude to the Okinawa gubernatorial election on Nov. 16, candidates opposed to the relocation won 16 seats in the 27-member assembly, while 11 were taken by supporters of the plan.
Among the 35 candidates running, 16 backed the new replacement facility in Nago for the Futenma base, which is now in the crowded city of Ginowan, while 19 were opposed.
The outcome is welcome news for Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine, a staunch opponent of the relocation plan, and Naha Mayor Takeshi Onaga, who is expected to run for governor.
Inamine told reporters Monday that the outcome of the assembly election clearly shows the will of Nago’s residents. He said he expects the opposition to the plan will be even stronger in the gubernatorial race in November.
With a population of around 62,000, Nago is a key battleground in Okinawa politics.
As a legacy of World War II, the prefecture hosts the bulk of U.S. military installations in Japan.
Voter turnout stood at 70.40 percent, down 1.67 percentage points from the previous election in 2010, officials said.
Despite local protests, the Defense Ministry began a drilling survey in waters off Nago in late August in preparation for landfill work for the proposed U.S. base.
Calling the existing plan, first agreed on in 1996, the “only viable option,” the central government has stressed the importance of U.S. deterrence and reducing the base-hosting burden on Okinawa.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Monday that the election result will not affect the planned Futenma move.
“We must avoid keeping the Futenma air station there” in Ginowan, Suga said at a news conference. “We will proceed with the transfer plan in a calm manner.”
“We have repeatedly said the relocation of the base to Henoko is the only solution when we think about the need to eliminate safety risks and maintain the U.S. military’s deterrent capability,” Suga, the top government spokesman, said.