First in a series on the Nov. 19 Okinawa gubernatorial election

OSAKA — Last November, during a visit to Kyoto for talks with then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, U.S. President George W. Bush was asked by reporters about the agreement the two countries had just signed to realign the U.S. bases in Japan.

Bush responded by looking directly at Koizumi and saying that Japan had promised to carry out the realignment plans, and that the United States expected Japan to keep its promise.

However, it is not Koizumi but his successor, Shinzo Abe, who now faces the unenviable task of actually carrying out the agreement. And the deal’s immediate fate rests on the outcome of the Nov. 19 Okinawa gubernatorial election.

The centerpiece of the realignment plan, and the most contentious issue in the election, is the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan in central Okinawa Island to a new airstrip to be built in Camp Schwab in the Henoko district of Nago in the north by 2014.

In exchange for construction of new runways by extending Camp Schwab into the nearby sea, the U.S. has agreed to pare down the marine presence in Okinawa by 7,000 to 8,000. This will also include the dependents of the marines to be moved. This deployment, also expected by 2014, will be to Guam.

The Futenma relocation plan, first drawn up in 1996, has stalled due to intense local opposition, and not only from the antibase movement.

Okinawa’s leaders, including departing Gov. Keiichi Inamine, who initially indicated they might be flexible on accepting a new airfield to replace Futenma, have become angry by what they say is Tokyo’s arrogant and dismissive attitude toward their conditions on hosting the new facility.

The upshot is that none of the three candidates running for the November election to succeed Inamine supports the central government’s relocation plan.

Former Okinawa Electric Power Co. Chairman Hirokazu Nakaima, who is backed by the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito and many of the larger Okinawan businesses, has indicated he would accept a new U.S. military facility inside the prefecture if certain changes to the current plan are made. However, he has so far refused to offer details on the kind of changes he wants.

In fact, Nakaima has spent his campaign playing down Futenma and playing up economic development for Okinawa, where the unemployment rate is 7.6 percent — the highest of all 47 prefectures. Nakaima is betting the a majority of Okinawa voters will put the economy before their opposition to the bases.

“The most important issue is how to assist Okinawan industry. My goal is to create a prefecture with no unemployment. The second most important (goal) is improving social welfare services, while the base issue is the third-most important,” he said at a rally in Naha on Nov. 2.

Reviving the local economy will require massive financial assistance from the central government, and Nakaima has enlisted the support of many of his former colleagues at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to show local voters that his connections there remain strong.

Last week, Nakaima told voters that even the Henoko facility will be a giant public works project that will bring money and jobs to Okinawan businesses, especially those involved in construction.

There are an estimated 4,000 construction companies in Okinawa, including Kokuba-gumi, the largest and most politically connected, and with which both Nakaima and Inamine have close relations. Kokuba is expected to receive a large part of any contract to build the new runways at Camp Schwab.

Antibase candidate Keiko Itokazu, a former member of the Upper House who enjoys opposition party support, says that if she is elected, she will demand the Henoko plan be scrapped and that the Futenma base be relocated outside Okinawa.

“This election is the perfect opportunity to tell both the governments of Japan and the United States that we don’t need a new base. But what is most important is that we look to the future and ask ourselves how we can ensure a peaceful, base-free Okinawa 100 years from now,” Itokazu told supporters in early November.

Candidate Chosuke Yara, who heads the Ryukyu Independence Party, is also running on an antibase platform. But his calls for Okinawa to secede from Japan has made him a considerable long shot.

Nakaima’s campaign, from the beginning, has had the unified support of the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, and Okinawa’s business and political leaders. In contrast, Itokazu’s selection came only after intense divisions within the antibase movement were resolved and wrangling between opposition parties, both in Okinawa and in Tokyo, over her support was settled.

The sharpest differences were between hardcore antibase activists who do not care if a governor provokes anger in Tokyo, and those who oppose the bases but want a governor who can deal with Tokyo diplomatically.

Antibase activists feared a repeat of the mayoral election in Nago in January, in which the antibase votes were split between two candidates, and conservative candidate Yoshikazu Shimabukuro won. During his campaign, Shimabukuro barely mentioned Henoko and then indicated he would support the central government plans promptly after he was elected.

This time, the antibase activists and the opposition parties have been able to settle on one candidate. Itokazu is someone with charisma and political savvy to whom experts give high marks.

“Itokazu has shown a great ability to communicate with voters. The fact that she’s a woman and has her own Tokyo connections is a plus. And her questions about whether voters believe all of Okinawa, as opposed to a few Okinawan businesses, will benefit from a Nakaima governorship have struck a chord,” said Robert Eldridge, an associate professor at the Osaka School of International Public Policy and a leading U.S. expert on Okinawan politics.

Growing numbers of small business feel only a few big firms like Kokuba, or Nakaima’s old company, Okinawa Electric Power Co., stand to benefit with him as governor.”

With election day nearing, concern is growing in Tokyo that Itokazu may win and Abe’s government is doing what it can to bolster Nakaima’s chances.

In early November, Abe instructed the Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Ministry to work toward increasing the annual domestic production of bioethanol to 6 million kiloliters, or 10 percent of Japan’s annual gasoline consumption. Okinawa is Japan’s center for bioethanol production from sugar cane. Nakaima has repeatedly promised economic benefits to Okinawa through large-scale bioethanol production.

Tokyo has also made it clear that future economic assistance depends on a governor who agrees to the Futenma relocation.

“I hope that, rather than have a situation where the economic revitalization of Okinawa is stalled, it can progress realistically. I hope to be able to speak frankly with whoever is elected,” Sanae Takaichi, minister in charge of Okinawa, told reporters in Tokyo last week, indicating she might be willing to discuss changes to the Henoko plan.

But Defense Agency chief Fumio Kyuma, whose agency drew up the plan, said Nov. 2 that no matter who wins the election, the Henoko plan will be difficult to accomplish.

Okinawa media and antibase activists have said that if Itokazu wins, the Defense Agency may push for a legal measure to appropriate the land for the new airstrip without first getting the Okinawa governor’s approval.

“The Abe administration is now finding out that central government leaders can make all of the promises to the U.S. about Okinawa they want, but that actually carrying them out is is another story,” Eldridge noted.

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