NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. - Official campaigning kicked off Sunday for the Nago Municipal Assembly election in Okinawa Prefecture, with the planned construction there of a new U.S. military base to facilitate the closure of an unpopular airfield elsewhere in the prefecture a hot-button issue.
The results of the Sept. 9 vote could affect Okinawa’s gubernatorial election on Sept. 30, in which a candidate opposing the base relocation plan is expected to compete against a candidate backed by the central government, which is pushing the move.
In the Nago assembly election, there will be 32 candidates running for 26 seats in the body. At stake is whether assembly members opposed to the relocation can continue to hold a majority following Nago’s mayoral election in February, which was won by a rookie who effectively is open to or tolerant of the controversial transfer.
Under the plan agreed to by Tokyo and Washington decades ago, U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma will be moved from a crowded residential area in Ginowan to the less-populated coastal district of Henoko in Nago.
Candidates backing Mayor Taketoyo Toguchi are highlighting a need to boost the local economy as the main issue in the election, while those against him are voicing their opposition to construction of the replacement base.
The central government considers the relocation plan the “sole solution” to remove the dangers posed by the Futenma base while maintaining the perceived deterrence of the Japan-U.S. alliance.
But many residents of the island prefecture, where the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan are situated, hope the base will be removed from Okinawa altogether due to accidents and crimes involving U.S. military equipment and personnel.
Mayor Toguchi, who defeated the anti-base mayor with support from Tokyo, has decided to offer school lunches and child care services free of charge using a “U.S. base realignment subsidy” from the central government.
Tokyo provides the subsidy to municipalities that host U.S. bases. It stopped paying the subsidy to Nago after anti-base candidate Susumu Inamine was elected mayor in 2010, but resumed it after Toguchi defeated Inamine in the election this year.
On Friday, the Okinawa Prefectural Government retracted its approval of landfill work in Nago for the relocation, as instructed by the late Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, citing illegalities in the procedure. Tokyo is highly likely to take the matter to court to confirm the validity of the approval earlier received from Okinawa.
Japan and the United States reached an agreement in 1996 on returning land used for the Futenma base. In 1999, the government decided to move the base to the Henoko area.