• Kyodo

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Official campaigning for the mayoral election kicked off Sunday in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, where the relocation of a key U.S. Marine Corps base remained the top issue.

So far, two independents — Atsushi Sakima, 47, a former member of the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly, and former Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha, 60, — have filed candidacies for the Feb. 12 election to choose the successor to former Mayor Takeshi Asato, who has resigned for health reasons.

Both candidates want the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which takes up one-quarter of the city’s land, moved outside the prefecture.

Sakima, who is backed by the Liberal Democratic Party and its Buddhist-backed ally New Komeito, formerly accepted its relocation within Okinawa, putting priority on early return of the land to the city.

Iha, supported mainly by the Japanese Communist Party and Social Democratic Party, is a hardliner opposed to the heavy U.S. presence in Okinawa.

The campaign kicked off amid a local backlash over alleged meddling in the election by a senior Defense Ministry official.

Okinawa Defense Bureau chief Ro Manabe is under fire for allowing his bureau to create a list of official personnel who either live in or have relatives in Ginowan, with a view to having them attend two lectures he held in January.

Of the list of 80 workers, 66 listened to his lectures, in which he urged attendees to vote in the Ginowan mayoral election and called on them to encourage their relatives to do so as well.

At issue is whether Manabe tried to sway voters with his lecture. Opposition lawmakers accuse him of tilting toward one of the two candidates, which would constitute a violation of the public offices election law, which bans public officials from using their positions for electioneering. The ministry investigation into Manabe’s actions is still under way.

The controversy involving the official dealt a fresh blow to state efforts to push forward the long-stalled plan to move the U.S. base north from Ginowan to a less populated area in Nago — a divisive issue for the central and local governments.

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