National / Politics

Incumbent Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine falls in closely watched Okinawa election

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

In a political victory for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and a defeat for anti-U.S. base forces in Okinawa, incumbent Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine failed in his re-election bid Sunday night, losing to a candidate strongly backed by Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito.

Inamine lost to Taketoyo Toguchi, a former Nago assemblyman, by less than 3,500 votes out of over 36,000 cast. Voter turnout was 76.92 percent, a slight increase over the previous 2014 election.

During the race, Toguchi emphasized local economics over a controversial new U.S. military facility.

Komeito, which had stayed neutral in the 2014 election, decided to back Toguchi this time. During the campaign, he avoided discussion over the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which sits in Ginowan in the central part of the main island, to Nago’s Henoko district, where a new offshore facility is being built.

Toguchi instead appealed to voters more concerned about the local economy — and central government support of it — and worried things had declined under Inamine.

Inamine, who hoped for a third term, ran mostly on his opposition to the Henoko project. He had the backing of Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga and his “all Okinawa” coalition, an alliance of traditional anti-base activists and local business leaders who don’t want the Henoko facility. Inamine also had the backing of most major opposition parties.

In the end, though, worries over the local economy and jobs convinced a majority of voters to go with Toguchi.

The election was seen as a proxy battle between Abe and the LDP, which wants the Henoko facility completed as soon as possible, and Onaga, who was swept to power in 2014 by running against the relocation. Toguchi’s victory came after intense campaigning on his behalf by the LDP. Major party figures, including rising star Shinjiro Koizumi, widely touted as a future prime minister, visited the prefecture to campaign for him.

Despite Toguchi’s victory, however, Okinawa remains angry at the central government and the U.S. military over a series of mishaps last month involving Okinawa-based U.S. helicopters that raised safety concerns. Last week, the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly unanimously called on the central government to force flights at Futenma over schools, hospitals, and residential areas to be halted.

The U.S. and Japan continue to insist the relocation of U.S. Marines at Futenma to a new offshore facility at Henoko, which is currently under construction, is the only option, despite longstanding local objections.

For Abe, the Nago result is good news at an opportune time. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is due to arrive in Tokyo Tuesday for a series of talks, where U.S.-Japan cooperation — which involves U.S. forces in Okinawa — on North Korea is expected to be high on the agenda.

In Okinawa, attention now turns to November, when Onaga is up for re-election in a race where Abe and the ruling coalition are likely to heavily support whoever ends up running against him.