OSAKA – The long-running standoff between Okinawa Prefecture and Tokyo over construction of a replacement facility for a U.S. military base is set to continue in the wake of Sunday’s gubernatorial election.
Former Lower House member Denny Tamaki, 58, a staunch opponent of building the replacement facility for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma at Henoko, in the northern part of the prefecture, defeated former Ginowan Mayor Atsushi Sakima, 54, who had the strong support of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito.
The final count showed Tamaki with 396,632 votes and Sakima with 316,458. The voter turnout rate was 63.24 percent — less than a percentage point down from the 2014 turnout rate.
Tamaki, the son of a U.S. Marine and a Japanese mother, was backed by the major opposition parties, which control the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly, as well as former Gov. Takeshi Onaga’s “all Okinawa” coalition of anti-base activists and business leaders who oppose Henoko but not necessarily the U.S.-Japan alliance. Onaga passed away in early August after a battle with cancer.
“The results of the election showed that voters wanted to continue with Onaga’s dying wish that no new base be built,” Tamaki told reports Monday morning.
Tamaki’s clear opposition to Henoko contrasted starkly with Sakima and central LDP politicians who traveled to Okinawa to support him. All avoided direct discussion of Henoko, emphasizing the need to close Futenma, in Ginowan, as early as possible. Instead, Sakima talked up local economic projects that the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition in Tokyo — which has said there is no other option besides Henoko — might help fund.
The strategy backfired. Okinawan media polls prior to the election showed a majority thought that Henoko was, in the least, a critical issue. In addition, despite their party’s endorsement of Sakima, an exit poll by the Ryukyu Broadcasting Corporation on Sunday night showed that nearly one-third of Komeito voters went for Tamaki.
The exit poll also showed 18 percent of LDP voters went for Tamaki, a sign of how dissatisfied many are with the way the Abe government has handled the Henoko issue. Tamaki also scored the most nonaffiliated voters, with the same Ryukyu Broadcasting poll indicating he won 69 percent of their votes.
Abe expressed regret to LDP officials over Tamaki’s victory late Sunday, but said it couldn’t be helped.
Tamaki must now figure out how to keep his promise to stop Henoko from being completed. In late August, the prefecture retracted approval of landfill work. Further court battles between Tokyo and Okinawa over the issue are expected in the coming months. Tamaki is prepared for legal action, but is also seeking agreement with Tokyo on other issues.
“I strongly support the prefecture’s decision to withdraw approval of the permit. But my victory doesn’t mean Okinawa and Tokyo are in a complete standoff. I want to work with the central government to increase Okinawa’s competitive edge. Let’s welcome Okinawa projects that expand the national economy,” Tamaki said to local reporters immediately following his victory.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters in Tokyo on Monday he accepted the results of the election, and would continue to work for Okinawa’s revitalization and to reduce the burden of the bases.
But Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said there was no change in the central government’s position to complete Henoko as quickly as possible. Suga, who traveled to Okinawa to campaign for Sakima, also indicated he was willing to meet with Tamaki.
Tamaki is among those who support a prefectural referendum on Henoko. A petition drive in support of the idea has netted over 92,000 signatures. Jinshiro Motoyama, head of a group called the Henoko Referendum on the Construction of a new U.S. Base in Henoko, said that the prefectural assembly is expected to approve the measure this month.
“That would mean a referendum within six months of prefectural assembly approval, so probably around April 2019,” he said.
But a referendum is politically problematic for Abe and his LDP. Nationwide local elections take place that same month, and Abe will be meeting U.S. President Donald Trump in Osaka in June for the Group of Twenty Leaders meeting — where the Henoko issue may be raised. Tamaki’s victory ensures that, despite Tokyo’s efforts to end political opposition in Okinawa and complete the Henoko project, the controversy will continue.