NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – Atsushi Sakima, mayor of Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, said Tuesday he will run in the Sept. 30 Okinawa governor’s election, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government expected to support him to push ahead with a plan to transfer a U.S. air base within the prefecture.
The 54-year-old mayor of Ginowan, where U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is located, emphasized the importance of “rebuilding ties” with the central government as he declared his candidacy in the election, which follows the death of Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who was staunchly opposed to the base relocation plan.
“Okinawa has continuously clashed with the state and we have seen strained ties and divisions (among our people),” Sakima, who is backed by Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said when referring to the base issue.
Conservative Shigenobu Asato, the 48-year-old chairman of a local logistics company and former head of Junior Chamber International Japan, has also declared his candidacy, but the LDP’s local chapter is arranging to only back Sakima.
The focus of the election is certain to be the plan to transfer the Futenma base from a crowded residential area in Ginowan to the less populated coastal district of Henoko in Nago, also on the main island of Okinawa.
Sakima stopped short of clarifying his position on this controversial issue, saying, “What is most important is to remove the danger of Futenma and seek the return (of the land used for the Futenma base).”
Sakima, a native of Ginowan, was elected mayor in 2012 and is serving his second term. Known for his relatively close ties with senior central government officials, he has accepted an offer from the LDP’s local chapter to run in the race.
As the schedule for the election has been moved up due to the death of Onaga, opponents of the base transfer project have yet to field a candidate but will step up their efforts to pick a successor to Onaga.
The 67-year-old incumbent died of pancreatic cancer last Wednesday before the end of his four-year term, which was to run until December.
Onaga’s funeral was held in Naha on Monday and some 4,500 people attended the service.
Onaga was a staunch opponent of the planned relocation of the Futenma base and had demanded that the base be moved out of the prefecture altogether.
“Onaga prioritized his faith over his health, and I believe his way of life will be handed down forever,” former Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine said in a speech at the funeral.
“Your actions, in which you risked your life, have had a huge impact on the whole of Japan,” he added, apparently referring to Onaga’s battle with the central government.
Okinawa’s spirit of peace, which was respected by Onaga, will be passed to younger generations, Inamine said.
Onaga staked his life on demonstrating that issues in Okinawa are themes that must be considered by all Japanese people, said Konosuke Kokuba, head of the LDP’s Okinawa prefectural chapter, which stood in opposition to Onaga.
Among other participants were former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and former Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, who lost to Onaga in the 2014 gubernatorial election.
The central government believes the Futenma base is necessary to maintain the perceived deterrence provided by the United States, while many people in Okinawa regard it as an unfair burden on the island that already hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan.