OSAKA – In a setback for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, state minister for Okinawa affairs Aiko Shimajiri lost her Upper House seat to a challenger backed by the prefectural governor and a coalition of activists opposed to U.S. bases there.
She was ousted by former Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha, 64, who campaigned on a platform of opposition to moving U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Ginowan to Henoko in Nago.
“It’s a knockout win over the Okinawan minister and, therefore, a knockout for the Abe administration,” Iha told supporters after the election.
His victory came amidst continued anger over the murder of an Okinawan woman in May, allegedly by a U.S. contractor, and other incidents involving U.S. military personnel.
Iha, a longtime critic of the U.S. military presence in Okinawa, was supported by Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga and a diverse group of traditional anti-base activists.
Iha’s supporters included the Social Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party as well as disgruntled conservatives, including some ex-LDP members who favor the U.S.-Japan military alliance but want a reduced U.S. military presence in Okinawa.
The defeat of Shimajiri, the minister in charge of Okinawa affairs, comes after the local LDP chapter failed to win a majority in last month’s prefectural assembly election. From the beginning of the Upper House campaign, Shimajiri found herself trailing in local opinion polls.
After the apparent murder of 20-year-old office worker Rina Shimabukuro in May, she called for revisions to the Status of Forces Agreement, which governs the jurisdiction of U.S. military personnel and civilian workers suspected of crimes. American Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, a contract worker at Kadena Air Base, has been charged in the case.
Okinawans were further angered in June when another U.S. civilian worker and a sailor were arrested in separate drunk driving incidents.
Last week, Tokyo and Washington agreed a narrower definition of those civilian workers who will be protected under SOFA, creating four basic categories. But the agreement received mixed to negative reviews in Okinawa.
Onaga said the details still had to be worked out, while others claimed the agreement did nothing to address the larger problem of the heavy presence of U.S. bases in Okinawa, calling it a mere reinterpretation of existing language rather than a fundamental revision.
Shimajiri, for the most part, said little about the base issue during the campaign, preferring to emphasize what she has done as the Okinawa affairs minister to improve the local economy. But her position became untenable with local anger over Shimabukuro’s murder and concerns that Futenma will not be relocated outside the prefecture within the next few years, as Onaga, Iha, and others in Okinawa have demanded.
Addressing Iha’s supporters on Sunday, Onaga noted that Iha’s win was announced soon after polls closed.
“The Okinawan election result was the first to be announced, a symbol that the people of Okinawa understand Iha’s position on the base issue,” Onaga said. “The will of the people on this issue was also expressed in the November 2014 governor’s election, in which I was elected, the prefectural assembly election last month, and now this election.
“But there are other issues for Okinawa. We want the dynamism of Asia to enter our prefecture, and there are concerns about child poverty. Iha will firmly address these issues in the Diet,” Onaga said.