• Kyodo

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Official campaigning got under way Thursday for the Sept. 30 Okinawa gubernatorial election, with the controversial plan to relocate a key U.S. military base within the prefecture topping the agenda.

Atsushi Sakima, 54, a former mayor of Ginowan, backed by Japan’s ruling parties, and former opposition lawmaker Denny Tamaki, 58, are the main contenders for the post left vacant by the death last month of Takeshi Onaga, who was a staunch opponent of the plan.

The outcome of the race could affect the future of the plan to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the crowded residential area of Ginowan to the less populated coastal district of Henoko in Nago, both on the island of Okinawa.

“Nothing will come out of confrontation and division. Through dialogue, I will convey the will of the Okinawa people to where it needs to be conveyed,” Sakima said in Naha at the start of official campaigning.

Sakima has secured support from the Liberal Democratic Party led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has been promoting the transfer of the base. The LDP’s coalition partner Komeito and the opposition Ishin no To (Japan Innovation Party) have also decided to back him.

“Only I can achieve everything, including the return of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and the Naha military port,” he said. Sakima is calling for the return of the land in Ginowan occupied by the base, but has not clarified his stance on its transfer to Nago.

Tamaki, a radio personality-turned-politician who served as a House of Representatives member of the opposition Liberal Party, decided to run as a successor to Onaga, enlisting backup from four other opposition parties and a parliamentary group.

“So far, I have worked to deliver Okinawa’s voice to parliament with your support,” Tamaki told his supporters in the village of Ie. “I will start my election campaign by carrying forward Mr. Onaga’s desire to make Okinawa a prefecture that grows strongly.”

The two candidates share the view that it is necessary to promptly close the Futenma base — which critics say poses a danger to local residents — and return its land to Japan.

As many Okinawa residents want the base moved outside the prefecture, Tamaki has expressed his opposition to its relocation to Henoko.

Other candidates running for the seat are Hatsumi Toguchi, an 83-year-old former Naha City Assembly member and an expert on local cuisine, and Shun Kaneshima, 40, a former employee at an internet technology firm who runs a restaurant.

Following instructions given by Onaga’s in July, the prefectural government in late August retracted its approval for landfill work necessary for the relocation, claiming illegality in the application process and halting construction work carried out by the Defense Ministry.

In Sunday’s Nago Municipal Assembly election, candidates opposed to the relocation plan managed to retain a majority.

According to local political sources, Onaga recorded a voice message shortly before his death designating Tamaki and local businessman Morimasa Goya as possible successors, but the message has not been made public. Tamaki is said to have then decided to run, while Goya has expressed support for Tamaki.

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