Top government officials in Tokyo on Monday welcomed the victory by the ruling bloc-backed candidate in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture’s mayoral election a day earlier, saying it will give momentum to the Futenma base relocation.
The re-election of Atsushi Sakima, 51, spells good news for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his right-hand man, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, after candidates backed by the ruling bloc suffered a string of defeats in recent key Okinawan elections.
Abe and Suga have pushed for the long-stalled relocation project, which would see U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma move from a crowded residential area in Ginowan to the Henoko area of Nago in northern Okinawa.
The relocation is seen as a symbolic gesture that would help bolster the alliance with the United States as Japan faces the territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands. The islets, also claimed by Beijing, are known as Diaoyu in Chinese.
Sakima got 27,668 votes to 21,811 for Keiichiro Shimura, who tried to capitalize on opposition to the Henoko plan. Turnout was 68.72 percent, up 4.82 percentage points from the last election in 2012.
Shimura, 63, was backed by popular Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who has taken the central government to court in his all-out campaign to halt the Henoko project. Onaga has called for Futenma’s military functions to be relocated outside the prefecture.
Sakima had avoided publicly announcing whether he supports the Henoko project, saying only that the Futenma base should be immediately shut down and dismantled.
Anti-war sentiment has remained strong in Okinawa, which saw fierce fighting in World War II.
Candidates opposed to the Henoko project won the Nago mayoral election in January 2014 and the Okinawa gubernatorial race that November, dealing a huge blow to Abe’s efforts to restart the relocation plan.
Onaga has also used the phrase “All Okinawa” — a term frequently used by local media to emphasize strong opposition there to the Henoko project. He has pointed to the recent spate of wins by anti-Henoko candidates in key races throughout the prefecture as proof that the majority of voters in the prefecture are against the plan.
But during a news conference Monday in Tokyo, Suga argued that the result of Sunday’s election shows the phrase is simply inaccurate.
“I have kept saying the term ‘All Okinawa’ (opposition) is out of touch with reality,” Suga told reporters at the prime minister’s office.
“This time, I think local people chose the incumbent while considering various issues, including those involving the economy, child welfare, urban development and military bases,” he said.
The result of the Ginowan race will give the central government powerful ammunition for its claim that there is backing in Okinawa for the Henoko project, including by the mayor of Ginowan, the city that hosts Futenma.
However, media exit polls Sunday suggest that Ginowan’s voters hold views that are not as clear-cut as either the Onaga or Abe side have claimed.
According to an exit poll by the Asahi Shimbun, 57 percent of 1,263 respondents said they oppose the Henoko plan while 34 percent back it.
Of those opposing the Henoko project, 76 percent voted for Shimura and the remaining 24 percent for Sakima, suggesting that the Futenma issue was not the decisive element for many local voters.
Asked what issues they considered in deciding who to vote for, 48 percent cited Futenma, followed by candidates’ past achievements, with 19 percent, and economic and welfare issues, also at 19 percent.
Older people attached greater importance to the Futenma issue, while those in their 20s and 30s put more emphasis on economic and welfare issues, the Asahi said.
Whatever the views of local voters might be, the central government is determined to continue to push the Henoko project, which will inevitably intensify the already emotional battle between Tokyo and Okinawa.
On Monday morning, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani told reporters the government will continue construction work in the Henoko area while paying heed to local residents’ environmental and privacy concerns.
Nakatani also said Tokyo will continue its policy of working to reduce the “burden” on Okinawa local residents of hosting U.S. bases.
“We’d like to make efforts to remove the danger (of possible accidents) from the Futenma airfield as soon as possible,” he said.