NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – In an election under intense scrutiny in both Tokyo and Washington, Okinawan voters head to the polls Sunday to choose a new governor.
The long-anticipated election is widely viewed as the final referendum on whether the political will exists in Okinawa to accept construction of a replacement facility for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within the prefecture.
The facility, currently located in the city of Ginowan, central Okinawa, has been the subject of long-standing protests over its planned relocation to the Henoko district of Nago farther north on the island.
With the main anti-base candidate leading in local media polls, the gubernatorial election could turn out to be bad news for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima ended years of stalemate between Tokyo and Okinawa over the Futenma issue last December, when he approved a landfill permit for the replacement base. The decision stoked the anger of Okinawans across the political spectrum and created concern among some in Washington.
A report this August by the U.S. Congressional Research Service, which prepares briefs for the legislative branch, warned that most Okinawans oppose construction of the new base, and that any “heavy-handed” actions by Tokyo or Washington could lead to gains for anti-base politicians.
Nakaima, 75, who is seeking a third term, has the backing of Abe and the LDP central headquarters, as well as many Okinawan representatives of the ruling party. He also has the support of some members of Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, and of politically powerful firms such as construction conglomerate Kokuba and Okinawa Electric Power Co., where he once served as president.
His main challenger, Takeshi Onaga, is a former mayor of Naha, the prefectural capital, who supported Nakaima four years ago. But after the governor’s decision to approve the landfill application, Onaga, 64, turned against him, claiming Nakaima had reneged on an earlier promise to seek Futenma’s relocation outside of Okinawa.
Onaga’s prominent supporters are Okinawan LDP and Komeito members opposed to the Henoko relocation, many Naha-area service industry businesses, and members of Okinawa’s traditional anti-base faction.
The other candidates are Mikio Shimoji, 53, a former House of Representatives lawmaker from the now-defunct Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party). Shimoji, who once leaned toward supporting the Henoko base plan, is calling for a prefectural referendum on what to do about the Futenma issue.
The fourth candidate, Shokichi Kina, 66, is a well-known Okinawan musician who has played with internationally known recording artists such as Ry Cooder. Until 2010, he served as a lawmaker with the Democratic Party of Japan in the House of Councilors.
Both Shimoji and Kina are considered long shots, turning the race effectively into a two-man show between Onaga and Nakaima.
Okinawan media polls earlier this month showed Onaga in the lead. With all signs pointing toward Abe dissolving the Diet’s Lower House and holding a snap election next month, Nakaima’s campaign statements about having secured a promise from the prime minister last December that Futenma will be closed within five years have been ringing ever more hollow in the past few days.
Even voters not necessarily opposed to the Henoko relocation appear worried that Nakaima put too much trust in the central government when authorizing the landfill project, with some fearing that those pledges will quickly be forgotten, or denied, after a general election in December.
Abe promised Nakaima last year that the state would provide Okinawa with at least ¥300 billion annually in subsidies through fiscal 2021 for a host of construction-related projects, including a second runway at Naha Airport. But the money must be approved annually by the Diet, with no guarantees that the amount promised will actually be made available by any future government.
One of the keys to the election appears to be Komeito. Many in its Okinawa chapter were upset with Nakaima’s decision last year, leading the party to refrain from endorsing any candidate. A joint poll conducted last week by the Okinawa Times and Ryukyu Asahi Broadcasting Corp. showed Komeito voters were split between Onaga and Nakaima.
For their part, Abe government officials have attempted to downplay the significance of the election. In September, as internal LDP polls showed Nakaima lagging behind Onaga, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga insisted the Henoko relocation was a problem of the past. “I don’t think it will be a major issue in the election,” he said.
Media poll samples, while small, tell a different story.
The Okinawa Times/Ryukyu Asahi poll of about 1,200 voters showed Futenma was the single most important issue of the campaign. And a Ryukyu Shimpo poll early this month showed 73 percent of 500 respondents opposed relocating Futenma within Okinawa.
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