NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. - Official campaigning kicked off for the closely watched mayoral race in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, on Sunday as the central government presses ahead with a divisive plan to move an unpopular U.S. Marine Corps base in Ginowan to the city.
The Feb. 4 election pits anti-base Mayor Susumu Inamine, 72, against challenger Taketoyo Toguchi, 56, who is backed by the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito ruling coalition.
The outcome is expected to influence the Okinawa gubernatorial election in November, when Gov. Takeshi Onaga, another fierce opponent of the relocation plan, is expected to run for re-election.
Inamine has been calling for scrapping the central bilateral plan based on a 1996 agreement with the United States to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the less densely populated Henoko district on the coast of Nago.
Inamine has the backing of opposition parties including the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Japanese Communist Party.
The central government is scheduled to fill in around 157 hectares of the seabed off Henoko so it can build a replacement runway in a V configuration as part of the deal.
Toguchi, a former member of the Nago Municipal Assembly known to be supportive of the relocation plan, has pledged to promote the local economy with Tokyo’s support.
While Toguchi has refrained from making the relocation plan a focal point of the race, government sources said the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will announce a subsidy for Nago for hosting the base.
Okinawa hosts the bulk of the U.S. military facilities in Japan, and accidents and crimes involving U.S. hardware and personnel often anger residents. As a result, economic support packages devised by the central government often play a key role in Okinawan elections.
“We should never allow construction of a new base in Henoko. As long as Gov. Takeshi Onaga is in office and I am the mayor of Nago, land reclamation will not move forward,” Inamine told supporters Sunday morning.
Toguchi meanwhile told supporters that his rival’s focus on Futenma had come at a cost to residents.
“Mr. Inamine’s administration is excessively concerned with a single issue and has paid little attention to citizens’ lives,” he said.
The two rivals will be vying for the votes of Nago’s 49,372 registered voters.
In a major step in the Futenma relocation plan, Tokyo began building seawalls off Henoko’s coast to enclose the reclamation area in April. The central government and the Okinawa Prefectural Government are engaged in a bitter court battle that was reignited when Onaga filed a fresh lawsuit in July to block the base transfer plan.