The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe must have breathed a sigh of relief over the reelection of the incumbent it backed in the mayoral election in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, on the heels of a series of local elections over the past two years that saw the victories of opponents to the national government’s plan to move the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Ginowan to another site in the prefecture.
Sunday’s election results, however, should not be taken as an endorsement by local voters of the divisive project to build the Futenma replacement facility in the Henoko area of Nago in northern Okinawa. Incumbent Mayor Atsushi Sakima, who shrugged off the challenge by a contender backed by Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, called for an early shutdown of the Futenma base but remained vague as to whether he supports the relocation to Henoko.
Sakima won 27,668 votes against 21,811 for the rival canditate Keiichiro Shimura, who echoed the governor’s opposition to the Henoko project. But a Kyodo News exit poll showed that 56 percent of Ginowan voters oppose the relocation of Futenma base to Henoko, compared with 33 percent who support the plan. While 77 percent of the opponents of the Henoko plan voted for Shimura, the remaining 23 percent backed the incumbent. The gap in the election outcome and people’s position toward the base issue reflects the complexity of local sentiments over the plan to relocate Futenma base.
Even before the campaign officially started earlier in January, Abe said the Ginowan election results would not influence the plan to build the replacement facility in Henoko, saying that a matter of national security concern — i.e., the construction of a new U.S. base — should not be determined by the outcome of a local election. Still, after Sunday’s vote Abe said that the incumbent’s victory was “significant.” His administration was obviously concerned that another election win for opponents of the Henoko project — following the Nago mayoral election, the gubernatorial election and races for local Lower House constituencies in 2014 — could put the national government on the defensive. The incumbent’s victory in Sunday’s mayoral race may bode well for candidates backed by the administration in other Okinawa elections this year, including the prefectural assembly race in June and the Upper House election the following month.
Onaga, meanwhile, has stressed that he will continue to oppose the Henoko project. Late last year, the standoff between his prefecture and the national government developed into a court battle in which both sides sued each other over the governor’s revocation of a permit that his predecessor Hirokazu Nakaima gave in 2013 for a landfill project off Henoko — and the national government’s counter move to suspend the validity of Onaga’s revocation, enabling the construction work for the new base facility to move forward.
This April will mark the passage of 20 years since Tokyo and Washington agreed that the Futenma site would be returned to Japan “within several years” — on condition that a replacement facility is built in Okinawa. That agreement was part of a broad realignment of U.S. miltary facilities in Okinawa in response to a flareup of local anti-U.S. base sentiment that was triggered by the rape of a local schoolgirl by three American servicemen the previous year.
Two decades later, the government reiterates that building the new facility in Henoko is the “only solution” to removing the dangers posed by the Futenma base, which is located in a residential area of Ginowan. The Abe administration sees progress in the Futenma relocation vital to the smooth operation of Japan’s security alliance with the United States. Onaga, who defeated Nakaima in the 2014 race on the promise that he would do all he can to stop the Henoko project, believes that the dispute should be considered in the context of Okinawa’s postwar history and its disproportionate burden of hosting the U.S. military presence under the alliance.
The judiciary will hand down its decision in the ongoing court battle sometime this year, but it’s not clear if that will mark the end of the bitter confrontation between Okinawa and the national government. Instead of taking the Ginowan election outcome as a cue to forge ahead with the Henoko construction despite local opposition, the Abe administration should think again whether the Henoko project will truly serve to reduce Okinawa’s U.S. base burden — a goal it keeps saying it is striving to accomplish — and enhance the stability of the security alliance.