National / Politics

Okinawans get set to vote in local elections amid increased tensions over the U.S. military presence

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

In a highly charged political environment, Okinawans head to the polls Sunday for prefectural assembly elections in voting that may result in a legislative body that strongly supports revising the 1960 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the United States.

Many voters in Japan’s southern most prefecture want local governments hosting bases to have more authority over U.S. personnel suspected of involvement in crimes, even more so now after the recent murder of a local woman allegedly at the hands of a U.S. base worker.

In addition, the poll could strengthen the political hand of Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who is in negotiations with Tokyo, and his supporters who oppose the relocation of a U.S. Marine base at Futenma to Henoko, on the northern part of the main island.

The central government’s announcement Friday that another 100 police officers and 20 patrol cars will be added to the Okinawan police force by the end of the year in an effort to beef up security, especially in areas where there are lots of U.S. military personnel, was greeted with skepticism by locals.

The governor said Friday it was a good first step, but not a substitute for revising the U.S.-Japan military agreement.

“It’s extremely regrettable that the government didn’t look at revising SOFA,” Onaga told reporters following Tokyo’s announcement.

Assembly elections are normally about local politics, especially pocketbook issues. In Okinawa, what to do about the Futenma relocation has also been a long-standing issue for politicians living in those parts of the island where the bases are located.

However, the timing of this year’s Okinawa assembly elections, coming only a couple of weeks after the murder of 20-year-old office worker Rina Shimabukuro, allegedly by Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, an American contract worker at Kadena Air Base, has revived calls among politicians of all stripes to formally amend SOFA.

On Tuesday the Okinawa chapter of the Liberal Democratic Party asked the party’s central headquarters to push for fundamental revisions of SOFA that would give local authorities more autonomy when crimes are committed either by U.S. military personnel or civilian employees.

The city of Nago, where Henoko is located, went further, demanding not only a fundamental review of SOFA but also that the Japanese and U.S. governments apologize and compensate the family of the slain woman.

The local daily Okinawa Times conducted a poll late last month of the prefecture’s 14 mayors and local village heads. It showed that four cities, including the prefectural capital, Naha, and Nago, wanted the marines out of Okinawa. Four others, including Ginowan, where U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is currently located, favored a large-scale reduction in the number of marines. Only three leaders favored having some marines stay.

The election also takes place about two weeks before a mass rally against the murder and the Henoko plan, which is scheduled to take place June 19 in Naha. All eyes are on whether that gathering will draw as many people as similar rallies drew in 1995 after the rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by three U.S. servicemen.

In an added twist to Sunday’s election, one of the prefectural assembly’s leading opponents of the Henoko plan passed away Friday. Yoshikazu Tamaki, 67, who helped spearhead the antibase rallies in 1995, died of cancer, the Okinawa Times and Ryukyu Shimpo reported.

Though he was not running for re-election due to his failing health, how Tamaki’s death will affect the final poll result and the June 19 rally are being closely watched.

A total of 71 candidates are contesting 48 seats. Of the 71, 37 are allied with Onaga, while the remaining 34 are either neutral or loyal to the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, which support the Henoko plan. Before being dissolved, Onaga’s faction had a slight majority in the assembly.

A victory by the Onaga camp will also spell trouble for Aiko Shimajiri, the Cabinet minister in charge of issues related to Okinawa. She is an Upper House member from Okinawa who is up for re-election next month.

Although Shimajiri has called for SOFA to be reviewed and pushed the Abe administration to beef up security measures, how the Shinzato case is handled by the U.S. and Japan over the coming weeks could impact her chances at the polls on July 10.