NAHA, Okinawa Pref. – Campaigning for the Nov. 19 Okinawa gubernatorial election got under way Thursday, with three newcomers filing their candidacies to succeed Keiichi Inamine.
The race is expected to pit Hirokazu Nakaima, 67, former vice governor and ex-chairman of Okinawa Electric Power Co., who is backed by the ruling coalition, against former House of Councilors member Keiko Itokazu, 59, who is supported by the opposition camp.
A third candidate is Chosuke Yara, 54, an employee of a clothing company who heads the Ryukyu independence party and is seeking to promote regional development.
Both Nakaima and Itokazu are opposed to the government’s latest plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan to Camp Schwab in the city of Nago. The relocation is seen as the biggest issue in the election.
But while Nakaima has acknowledged that it may be necessary to move the facility somewhere within the prefecture, Itokazu has repeatedly expressed opposition to relocating it within Okinawa and has called for it to be relocated to another part of Japan or overseas.
Itokazu said in Thursday’s election kickoff, “We have a choice of either suffering due to base issues a 100 years from now, or creating a peaceful island without any bases.”
Nakaima pledged to continue the policies of the Inamine administration and to develop them further.
Speaking at a press conference in Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki said the government is closely following the opinion of the residents of Okinawa concerning the base realignment issue, which will be reflected in the election results.
“We hope this will be an election to debate what Okinawa, which is the cornerstone of Japan’s security and has suffered great pains, can do for this country’s security, and above all for the development of the prefecture,” Shiozaki said.
Okinawa hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan.
Tokyo and Washington reached a final agreement in May on a plan to build by 2014 a new airfield that extends from Camp Schwab out into the nearby sea as part of the U.S. military realignment.
Inamine opposed the plan and insisted that either a civilian-military airport be built offshore from Camp Schwab, as agreed in an earlier plan, or that the airfield be moved outside of Okinawa altogether.
The initial Futenma relocation plan, agreed to by Japan and the U.S. in 1996, became snagged by environmental concerns and opposition from protesters. It had called for an offshore runway to be built over coral reefs off Camp Schwab.
Shiozaki said that regardless of who is elected governor, the government sees it as important to proceed with the realignment that was agreed to in May, and to continue to seek the support of the people of Okinawa.
Defense Agency Director General Fumio Kyuma made similar remarks in a separate news conference in Tokyo, adding that as a member of the ruling coalition, he hopes the candidate backed by the ruling bloc wins.
Nakaima, backed by the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito and endorsed by the local business community, has emphasized the need to stimulate the local economy with the aim of ending unemployment.
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