Hirokazu Nakaima, a ruling coalition-backed former vice governor and chairman of a power utility, was elected Sunday governor of Okinawa in a campaign closely watched for its impact on the proposed realignment of U.S. military bases in Japan.

By electing Nakaima, 67, over his opposition-backed opponent Keiko Itokazu, Okinawa voters appear to have chosen promises of future economic prosperity over current concerns about the U.S. military bases in the prefecture.

During the hard-fought campaign, Nakaima, who had the support of the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito, played down the controversy over whether the U.S. Marines Futenma Air Station should be relocated within Okinawa Prefecture and played up his plans to achieve economic revitalization by turning the prefecture into a major center for information technology.

Nakaima’s narrow victory was a boost for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Speaking in Hanoi, where he was attending the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Abe said he was “happy to see a good result” in the Okinawa race.

With 98 percent of the votes counted, Nakaima was ahead of Itokazu 343,688 to 307,119. A third candidate, Chosuke Yara, received 5,996 votes. Turnout was 64.54 percent, topping the 57.22 percent in the gubernatorial election four years ago.

In what candidates and political pundits said was one of the most important gubernatorial election in years, two issues were dominant.

The first was the proposed relocation of the Futenma airfield to the Henoko district in Nago, northern Okinawa, which was agreed on by the Japanese and U.S. governments in May as part of a broad realignment of American bases in Japan. The plan faces stiff local opposition.

The second key issue was economic revival and how the prefecture can develop new industries such as information technology and ethanol fuel from sugar cane.

Although three candidates ran in the race to succeed Gov. Keiichi Inamine, the campaign was essentially a contest between Nakaima and Itokazu, a 59-year-old former member of the Upper House.

Nakaima, a former trade ministry official who also served as head of the Okinawa Chamber of Commerce and Industry, is not against relocating the airfield from Futenma to Nago. But he opposes the government’s current plan for a V-shaped runway to be built by extending Camp Schwab into the sea, saying the configuration would create noise and pollution problems for nearby communities.

Itokazu opposes construction of a new U.S. military facility within Okinawa Prefecture and demanded that Futenma’s functions be relocated elsewhere in Japan or overseas.

In addition to support from the Democratic Party of Japan, the Social Democratic Party and other opposition forces as well as antibase activists, she had the support of smaller businesses who felt they benefited little from the past eight years of leadership under Inamine.

Nearly 300 people gathered at Nakaima’s campaign headquarters following his victory, where he vowed to continue Inamine’s policies and emphasized his commitment to making economic revitalization, including the creation of new jobs, his top priority.

“Okinawa currently has between 70,000 and 80,000 businesses, but we have to invite firms from outside Okinawa. Gov. Inamine has helped create jobs for 40,000 people during his eight years in office, but we need more businesses for more jobs,” Nakaima told reporters.

On the Futenma relocation, Nakaima avoided questions on what specific proposals he would make to the central government, saying only that he wants to discuss the issue further with Tokyo.

“I don’t support the current relocation plan, but I want to discuss the issue with a wide variety of Okinawans, and then with the central government,” he said.

The election was seen as a major test for Abe, who took office in September, and his ruling coalition in a prefecture where politicians — even those who belong to the LDP — have been traditionally hostile to central government lawmakers and bureaucrats.

During the campaign, members of the Abe Cabinet went out of their way to smooth over differences between the central government and Okinawa over the base issue and to hint at economic assistance to come if voters chose Nakaima.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki said Friday that negotiations with Okinawa over implementing the Henoko agreement will continue in a friendly manner regardless of the election’s outcome, though he added that the central government’s basic stance would not change.

He did say, however, that the central government must consider ways in which to develop Okinawa further.

Sanae Takaichi, state minister in charge of Okinawa affairs, virtually repeated Nakaima’s campaign speeches, telling Okinawans she hoped local employment could be secured by turning Okinawa into Asia’s largest center of information technology. She she did not offer any concrete proposals for accomplishing this.

But Defense Agency Director General Fumio Kyuma sounded a note of caution, saying that both candidates were opposed to the government’s realignment plan, which the Defense Agency had long pushed for. He said implementing the plan will be difficult regardless of the outcome in Sunday’s election.

Under the May agreement, Japan and the U.S. will build the Futenma replacement facility at Camp Schwab by 2014. All construction costs will be borne by the Japanese government.

Once the facility is built, 8,000 marines and 9,000 of their dependents will be relocated to Guam.

Okinawans of all political stripes, including outgoing Gov. Inamine, refused to accept the plan, citing concerns over potential noise levels. Inamine was also angry at what he said was insufficient prior consultation by Tokyo with local government officials.

During the campaign, Nakaima said he would carry on Inamine’s policies. While he came out against the V-shaped runways, he said he is open to building a new base within Okinawa. He did not, however, offer a specific alternative.

Local media polls in the lat few weeks indicated that voters were concerned not just on the base issue but economic revitalization, which will require massive funds from the central government for local infrastructure projects boosting information technology and tourism.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.