NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – Voting began Sunday in the Okinawa gubernatorial election, with a controversial plan to relocate a key U.S. military base within the southern island prefecture high on the agenda.
Atsushi Sakima, a 54-year-old former Ginowan mayor backed by the ruling parties, and former opposition lawmaker Denny Tamaki, 58, are the major contenders for the seat left vacant by Takeshi Onaga, who died of pancreatic cancer in early August and was a staunch opponent of the relocation plan.
The result of the race could have an impact on the course of the plan to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from a crowded residential area of Ginowan to the less populated coastal district of Henoko in Nago.
Sakima has received powerful support from the Liberal Democratic Party, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has been promoting the base transfer. The LDP’s junior coalition partner, Komeito, and the opposition Japan Innovation Party also are behind him.
Tamaki, a former radio personality who served as a House of Representatives member from the Liberal Party, has highlighted that he was designated by Onaga as his successor. He is backed by four other opposition parties and a parliamentary group.
Both candidates have emphasized the importance of the prompt closure of the Futenma base, which they say poses a danger to nearby residents, and the return of its site to Japan.
Regarding construction of a replacement facility in Nago, they are adopting different approaches.
Tamaki has stated his opposition to the base relocation to the coastal area in Nago. Sakima did not clarify his stance on it during the campaign, apparently taking into account that the majority of locals hope the base will be moved outside Okinawa.
Other candidates running are Hatsumi Toguchi, an 83-year-old former Naha city assembly member and an expert on local cuisine, and 40-year-old Shun Kaneshima, a former internet technology firm employee who runs a restaurant.
Following Onaga’s instruction in July, the prefectural government retracted after his death its approval for landfill work necessary for the relocation in October, claiming illegality in the application process and halting construction work by the Defense Ministry.
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. After that, Tamaki decided to run in the election, while Goya has expressed support for Tamaki.
Meanwhile, voting in the Ginowan mayoral election also started Sunday to pick a successor to Sakima. Former Deputy Ginowan Mayor Masanori Matsugawa, 65, and company executive Harumasa Nakanishi, a 57-year-old former head of a union of Okinawa high school parent-teacher associations, are the candidates.
In a similar picture to the gubernatorial race, Nakanishi, tapped by local members of the opposition Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party, has expressed opposition to the base relocation plan within Okinawa. Matsugawa, backed by the LDP-led coalition, has not clarified his stance.
Earlier in September, the Nago city assembly election was held, in which candidates opposed to the base relocation plan secured a majority.
The Futenma relocation, first agreed on between Japan and the United States in 1996, has been a sensitive issue in Okinawa. The island prefecture, which was under U.S. control between 1945 and 1972 following Japan’s defeat in World War II, hosts the bulk of U.S. military installations in Japan.