A senior Defense Ministry official came under suspicion Wednesday of not only trying to tamper with the upcoming mayoral election in Ginowan but taking similar action in 2010 for a vote in Nago — the two cities in Okinawa deeply connected to the controversial relocation of the Futenma U.S. air base.

Speculation has grown that Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka now has no choice but to sack Ro Manabe, his Okinawa bureau chief.

Manabe was only appointed in December, after his predecessor, Satoshi Tanaka, was axed for using a Japanese euphemism for rape in describing the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Ginowan to the Henoko coastal area of Nago.

Manabe’s dismissal would make it even more difficult for Tokyo and Washington to breathe life into the stalled relocation plan for the Futenma base, and deal a blow to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government.

Earlier the day, Tanaka indicated he may “reprimand” Manabe, and the opposition camp is certain to mount an all-out assault against the minister during the current Diet session.

They are charging that Manabe’s move constituted illegal “interference” in local affairs by the central government.

“It was an act that could be misunderstood or criticized,” Tanaka said. “I must give strict guidance and supervision. . . . The Defense Ministry will come down with a decision soon.”

According to a report compiled by the ministry, its bureau in Okinawa drew up a list of 80 officials who either live or have relatives living in Ginowan. Manabe then held 10-minute lectures on Jan. 23 and 24 for a total of 68 officials from the list.

The report says an internal investigation found that during the lectures, Manabe stressed the importance of the Feb. 12 Ginowan mayoral election and urged the officials to vote, but he “did not support a specific candidate.”

According to media reports, Manabe has also admitted to holding a similar lecture in 2010 for a Nago mayoral election, but there were two local elections that year and details were not available.

Appearing before the Lower House Budget Committee, Tanaka said he had no idea Manabe had held such lectures.

“I had nothing to do with it and it was a bolt from the blue for the ministry as well,” he said.

Meanwhile, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, who said Tuesday that “strict measures” must be taken, changed tack Wednesday morning and said Manabe’s lectures “could be a good thing,” indicating a reluctance to take harsh action against the official.

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