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U.S. base relocation top issue in Okinawa gubernatorial election

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga’s death last month at age 67 from pancreatic cancer came just over three months before the originally scheduled gubernatorial election and just days after he announced the prefectural government would take steps toward retracting permission for landfill work related to a new U.S. military base in Henoko, in northern Okinawa Island.

Onaga, who was elected in November 2014 by promising no new base would be built in the prefecture, had been ill for months. At the time of his death, it was uncertain if he would run again or designate a successor to carry on the legal battle with the central government over Henoko.

Official campaigning kicks off Thursday for the election that was rescheduled for Sept. 30.

Who are the main candidates?

The front-runners include Atsushi Sakima, 54, who stepped down as mayor of Ginowan, in central Okinawa Island, to run for governor. Ginowan is home to U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, and many of its functions are to be relocated to Henoko, in northern Okinawa, where the new U.S. base is to be built.

The other main challenger is Denny Tamaki, 58, a Lower House member representing the Okinawa No. 3 district in the northern part of the main island, which includes the city of Nago, where Henoko is located, as well as the city of Okinawa.

Who is supporting the candidates and what are their positions and strategies on the base issue?

Sakima has the strong support of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party, and is said to be ideologically close to Abe. In addition, Komeito, which did not officially endorse a candidate in 2014, is supporting Sakima this time around. He also has the support of Nippon Ishin no Kai and Kibo no To (Party of Hope).

Many Okinawan firms and others who expect to benefit from base construction or subsidies from the central government for local public works projects have also thrown their support behind Sakima.

Sakima is carefully avoiding a direct position on Henoko. His campaign strategy is not to debate the Henoko issue, but to emphasize the dangers of continuing to operate Futenma in crowded Ginowan and the need to close that base as quickly as possible. LDP politicians from the central government and local chapters have been told not to mention Henoko in their public messages of support for Sakima.

Instead, the LDP’s focus is on support for Sakima in the Abe administration, which they insist will translate into more central government spending on a raft of local public works projects and local jobs.

Tamaki has been tapped as Onaga’s designated successor and has the support of all major opposition parties except Nippon Ishin. He is also supported by Onaga’s “all Okinawa” coalition of traditional anti-base, anti-military activists, workers unions, students, and local small and medium business leaders, and individuals who support or are neutral on the U.S.-Japan military alliance but oppose the Henoko base.

Tamaki’s strategy is to vow to continue Onaga’s fight to oppose the Henoko base transfer and appeal to Okinawans across the political spectrum by saying opposition is not a matter of political ideology but of Okinawan identity. His supporters also include those who want to put the Henoko plan to a local referendum to settle, they say, the issue once and for all.

What are some of the promises being made by both sides?

Sakima is proposing that once Futenma’s operations are finally relocated somewhere else, the land can be used to host an as-yet unspecified agency of the United Nations, which would provide a continuing source of income to the over 3,700 owners of the land on which the Futenma base is situated. The owners receive land-lease fees from Tokyo.

On nonbase issues, Sakima has promised to raise the prefecture’s average annual income to ¥3 million per person from the current level, which is around ¥2.1 million per person.

He also says he’ll lobby the central government to support child poverty issues and to provide free nursery schools and medical care to young children. He refers to higher central government subsidies that Yamaguchi Prefecture received after a previous realignment of U.S. bases in Japan as an example of how he might seek funding. Yamaguchi Prefecture is Abe’s home turf and it hosts a U.S. Marine base in Iwakuni.

Tamaki is essentially vowing to continue Onaga’s policy of opposing the central government on building the Henoko base, including legal challenges against it. He supports efforts to withdraw landfill permission and has indicated he’ll continue the fight in the courts and through whatever administrative means he can employ as governor. He wants Futenma’s operations relocated outside of the prefecture.

Beyond the base issue, Tamaki is emphasizing social welfare policies, the environment and support for women, children and the elderly, and investment for small and medium-size businesses.

Tamaki has said he opposes revising Article 9 of the Constitution and of deploying Ground Self-Defense Force elements to Miyakojima and Ishigaki islands, which are part of Okinawa Prefecture.

He has also indicated support for getting out of nuclear power and into renewable energy, and for laws to curb hate speech.

What would a victory by Sakima likely mean, and what would a victory by Tamaki mean for the base issue?

A Sakima victory would force him to decide quickly whether to continue the legal effort by the prefecture to revoke the landfill permit for Henoko, which is what the prefectural assembly wants, or to withdraw it, pleasing Abe, the central government and the U.S., but straining relations with the assembly.

That decision would also allow the filling in of the offshore area to go ahead sooner rather than later, arousing the anti-base opposition.

A Tamaki victory would be seen as a defeat for Abe and the pro-base crowd, and would mean the political standoff between Okinawa and Tokyo over building the Henoko facility, which dates back to the mid-1990s, would continue.

It also means a prefecturewide referendum on the issue would likely become a reality, probably sometime next year.