With Okinawa’s Nov. 17 gubernatorial election looming, voters are gauging the progress made during the first term of Gov. Keiichi Inamine in addressing local concerns over the concentration of U.S. military bases and efforts to boost the prefecture’s economy.

The campaign, which officially kicks off Thursday, is seen as a vote of confidence in the 69-year-old Inamine.

In light of the 30th anniversary this year of Okinawa’s reversion from U.S. rule, it is also a vote on three decades of national government policy on Okinawa, which still suffers from a variety of problems despite its increasing strategic importance within the bilateral security arrangement.

The prefecture is flush with U.S. bases. While it accounts for only 0.7 percent of Japan’s total land area, Okinawa provides some 75 percent of the land used exclusively by the U.S. military stationed in Japan.

Okinawa also suffers from an economic disparity with the rest of Japan; its unemployment rate, which stood at a record high 9.4 percent in September, is the highest of any prefecture and its wage level is the nation’s lowest.

“Okinawa in the final months of World War II was the only part of Japanese soil to become a battlefield. It has a special meaning for the entire nation,” said Masahiko Otsubo, a top Cabinet Office bureaucrat in charge of Okinawa issues.

“Since Okinawa’s reversion to Japan in 1972, our policy has focused on narrowing its economic disparities with the mainland and responding to its concerns over the U.S. bases.”

Inamine is focusing his re-election campaign on the progress he says he has made toward consolidating and scaling down the U.S. military presence.

In July, the prefecture and national government agreed on a basic plan to build an airport for joint military and civilian use in Nago, northern Okinawa Island, as a relocation site for the helicopter operations now based at the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station in Ginowan.

Time limit proves elusive

As a condition to this agreement, Inamine advocates limiting the new airport’s use by the U.S. military to 15 years.

The U.S. has refused to accept this proposal and the government in Tokyo won’t commit either way.

“Progress will be made (toward achieving the 15-year limit) before work begins (on the new site),” Inamine said Sept. 10 when he formally announced he was seeking re-election.

The relocation plan was compiled in accordance with a 1996 Japan-U.S. agreement to return the Futenma base in five to seven years on condition that its helicopter operations remain somewhere in Okinawa.

Inamine has described his decision to accommodate the new airport as a “better choice, if not the best.”

Washington has rejected the time limit, saying it is difficult to predict the international situation 15 years down the road.

Tokyo has meanwhile kept to the sidelines, despite its pledge to address Okinawa’s concerns.

This is where rival candidates will try to distance themselves from Inamine, a conservative independent supported by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner New Komeito.

Masanori Yoshimoto, 65, a former Okinawa vice governor running as an independent with support from the Social Democratic Party, has demanded that the helicopter base be relocated outside Okinawa.

Naming an alternative

“If the government needs to build a relocation facility, other prefectures must accept it,” Yoshimoto said earlier this month, naming Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, as a candidate site.

Yoshimoto served as vice governor under Masahide Ota, who Inamine knocked out of office in 1998 with LDP support.

Another independent, 60-year-old Shigenobu Arakaki, is supported by the Japanese Communist Party. He is demanding the unconditional return of the Futenma base.

Inamine, on measures to stimulate the local economy, has emphasized his close ties with the national government and the resulting benefits to the local business community, including Okinawa’s hosting of the Group of Eight summit in July 2000.

He has also underscored the significance of legislation enacted in March by the national government that replaced an Okinawa promotion and development law adopted when the United States returned the prefecture to Japan in 1972.

The new legislation is aimed at boosting Okinawa’s economy via the creation of a special deregulation zone for financial businesses — the first of its kind in Japan. It is also designed to lure intellectuals to engage in scientific and technological research.

The prefectural government is apparently betting everything on these projects.

“We hope the science and technology research project will make Okinawa one of the world’s top research centers, so we can take advantage of it to promote local industries,” an Inamine aide said.

Rivals in disarray

Inamine may also benefit from divisions among his rivals.

The SDP, JCP and marginal local parties, long united in previous gubernatorial elections, are now divided for the first time since the late 1960s — a development evidenced by the separate candidacies of Yoshimoto and Arakaki.

“Given the division in the opposition camp, the upcoming election will probably prove favorable for Inamine,” said Ryukyu University professor Masaaki Gabe. “The gauge of Inamine’s success is not whether he can win but how many votes he can acquire from other candidates.”

Regardless of the election’s outcome, however, Okinawa’s importance to the national government has been waning recently, with political initiatives to deal with its problems being increasingly displaced by bureaucratic policy steps, Gabe said.

“Although Inamine has underlined progress in the base relocation, the basic plan agreed to in July contains various problems,” said Gabe, an expert on Okinawa’s U.S. base issues. “The plan illuminates the national government’s lack of political initiative in responding to Okinawa’s sentiment toward the U.S. bases.”

Gabe said the decision to build the offshore airport by creating a man-made island was chosen because it was cheaper than building a floating airport, as was once considered.

“If there had been strong political leadership in Tokyo in negotiating budget outlays, reclamation, which could damage the local environment, would not have been the choice,” he said.

Every assurance given

Otsubo of the Cabinet Office stressed, however, that the national government will take every step to ease Okinawa’s environmental concerns over the project. “We plan to conduct environmental assessments and hold dialogues with local residents when carrying out the plan.”

Gabe is also pessimistic regarding the new legislation aimed at shoring up Okinawa’s economy, stating it is “full of bureaucratic ideas that sound all right on paper but are unlikely to prove feasible in terms of real business.”

The project to create a financial tax heaven in Nago, for example, would mean little to locals unless manufacturers — rather than financial firms — move into the prefecture, enabling more local residents to land jobs, Gabe said.

But Otsubo insists the new legislation is significant.

“We examined our policy of the past 30 years, and believe we have achieved the original aim of narrowing Okinawa’s economic disparities with the rest of Japan to a certain extent,” he said. “The latest steps are designed to help Okinawa stand on its feet by promoting new industries.”

Gabe argued that Okinawa’s gradual retreat from the national government’s policy agenda is reflected by the choice of Cabinet minister overseeing issues pertaining to the prefecture.

In the Sept. 30 Cabinet shuffle, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi appointed Hiroyuki Hosoda, an LDP member in the House of Representatives, to the post, the first ministerial position Hosoda has held.

On the back burner?

Compared with his predecessors, including former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and senior LDP figure Koji Omi, Hosoda’s appointment indicates that “the national government thinks Okinawa’s imminent problems — Futenma and economic issues — have been settled for the time being,” Gabe said.

Under these circumstances, setting a 15-year time limit on the relocation base may be moot, although Inamine has vowed to keep up the pressure.

Whatever happens, the national government will move ahead with the airport’s construction.

“This is an agreement reached after consultations involving the national government, Okinawa Prefecture and local municipalities,” Otsubo said, noting that the plan will proceed as scheduled regardless of who wins the election.

Recent international tensions in the wake of last year’s terrorist attacks on the U.S. have also boosted the strategic importance of Okinawa’s bases, making it difficult for Tokyo to prod Washington over the time limit.

With the U.S. threatening to wage a military offensive against Iraq over its alleged attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. forces in Okinawa could play a pivotal role, according to military analyst Kazuhisa Ogawa.

Bastion against ‘evil’

President George W. Bush has branded the Iraqi regime led by Saddam Hussein part of an “axis of evil” also comprising Iran and North Korea. Pyongyang recently stunned the international community by revealing it has been developing a nuclear weapons program.

Citing the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s, Ogawa likened the forces in Okinawa to the U.S. military’s “arm and leg muscles.”

If hostilities erupt, Okinawan calls for a scaling down of U.S. bases, a movement that once gained momentum after the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by three U.S. servicemen, would suffer a serious setback, Gabe said.

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