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Gov. Takeshi Onaga’s death muddles long-standing U.S. base relocation plan in Okinawa

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga’s death Wednesday night greatly complicates the already difficult and long-standing question of when, or even if, construction of an offshore replacement facility for the U.S.’s Futenma base will ever be completed.

Onaga was a staunch opponent of the central government’s plan to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma base to the Henoko coastal area of Nago, in the northern part of the prefecture’s main island, from densely populated Ginowan in central Okinawa.

The governor’s death at age 67 following a monthslong bout with pancreatic cancer came less than two weeks after he announced he was revoking his predecessor Hirokazu Nakaima’s 2013 decision to approve the land reclamation permit needed for the Henoko project.

The Okinawa Defense Bureau, a local unit of the Defense Ministry, had said that reclamation work could begin as early as next week.

Onaga beat Nakaima in the 2014 gubernatorial election by opposing the relocation plan. He had the support of a broad coalition of traditional anti-base activists and business leaders who opposed the building of the replacement facility but not necessarily the U.S.-Japan security treaty.

Onaga’s illness had raised questions about whether he would stand for re-election in November. He had not made a decision at the time of his death, nor had an obvious successor been chosen by his supporters. With the election now moved up and expected to take place sometime in late September, the anti-base movement must quickly settle on a candidate.

Okinawa media on Thursday suggested possible candidates include current Vice Gov. Kiichiro Jahana, 61, a close Onaga ally; Keiko Itokazu, 70, an Upper House lawmaker elected from Okinawa; and Naha Mayor Mikiko Shiroma, 67.

Other possible candidates include former Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine, 73, and Upper House member Yoichi Iha, 66, who formerly served as mayor of Ginowan.

“Supporters of Onaga will be meeting Thursday to discuss who the candidate should be,” said Satoshi Taira, an anti-base activist and prominent Onaga supporter.

The Okinawa chapter of the Liberal Democratic Party had already tapped Ginowan Mayor Atsushi Sakima to run in the election. Sakima has echoed the central government’s position that the Futenma base must be relocated as soon as possible and criticized the governor’s efforts to block construction at Henoko.

The next few months will be busy in Okinawa politics with multiple races that could impact the relocation issue.

First up is the Nago Municipal Assembly election, scheduled for Sept. 9. Earlier this year, the city’s anti-base incumbent Inamine was defeated by an LDP-backed candidate, and the central government is hoping for a more base-friendly council after the election.

Later, the Naha mayoral election is scheduled for Oct. 21, during which the base issue and Okinawa’s economic development are expected to be key issues for voters.

Finally, there is the question of a prefectural referendum on the Futenma issue, which proponents now see as the only way to put an end to 20 years of controversy. Nearly 110,000 signatures have been gathered accounting for 8.72 percent of eligible  voters, far above the 2 percent threshold required to introduce a referendum proposal to the prefectural assembly.

“We conducted a two-month campaign to collect signatures, which ended on July 23. The various election boards of local municipalities are now confirming the signatures of registered voters and must complete their efforts by Aug. 19,” said Jinshiro Motoyama, the head of the referendum effort.

If a demand for a referendum is introduced and approved by the prefectural assembly, where the majority of members oppose the Henoko plan, it could take place sometime next spring, he added.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed his condolences over Onaga’s death in a Thursday morning news conference but said the construction of the base would proceed in Henoko.

“I was extremely surprised at the sudden news. But in thinking of removing the danger of the Futenma base and maintaining the deterrent capabilities of the U.S.-Japan alliance, there’s no change to the fact that (the Henoko plan) is the sole solution,” Suga said.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had a contentious relationship with Onaga stemming from their opposing views on the base relocation, as well as senior LDP members and the U.S. government praised the late governor following news of his death.

“I want to pay tribute to his efforts in contributing to Okinawa’s development,” Abe told reporters in Nagasaki, where he was attending the ceremony to mark the 73rd anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing.

The prime minister added that Onaga had worked hard for the prefecture’s economic revitalization.

LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai also offered praise.

“I always felt he made it his life’s work, as a politician and a man, to attempt to deal with Okinawa’s various problems,” Nikai said in a statement.

Even the U.S. government made a statement. Onaga had traveled to Washington on several occasions in an attempt to stop the base relocation project.

“We are grateful for Gov. Onaga’s contributions to our relationship with Japan, and we deeply value our work with him on issues of importance to the people of Okinawa over the years,” said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Katina Adams, according to Kyodo News.