National / Politics

Bloc against U.S. base transfer keeps majority in Okinawa election

Kyodo

A bloc of assembly members opposed to relocating a key U.S. military base within Okinawa Prefecture retained a majority in Sunday’s prefectural election.

The result mirrors strong local sentiment against the push by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government to keep U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within the prefecture by completing a replacement facility for the base in the Henoko coastal district of Nago.

With the majority, Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki will be in a stronger position to oppose the central government’s plan to move the base, which is considered to pose a danger to local residents given its current location in a densely populated area of Ginowan.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Monday the central government would move ahead with the relocation of the U.S. military base despite opponents retaining their majority in the election.

“We will go ahead with the relocation to the Henoko district while carefully explaining (the plan) to local people,” the top government spokesman told a news conference, referring to the new site in Nago.

“There is no change in our stance,” he said, adding that Tokyo would continue efforts to reduce the burden on Okinawa of hosting the bulk of U.S. military facilities in the nation.

Many residents have long hoped for the Futenma base to be moved outside of Okinawa, which hosts about 70 percent of the total acreage used exclusively by the U.S. military in Japan, despite the prefecture only representing 0.6 percent of the country’s land.

Sunday’s contest is the first prefectural assembly election since Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki became governor in October 2018 on a platform of opposition to the transfer plan. Voter turnout was the lowest ever, at 46.96 percent.

His predecessor, Takeshi Onaga, whose death triggered the gubernatorial election, was also a staunch opponent of the base relocation plan.

Before Sunday’s vote, the bloc supporting Tamaki — which includes parties in opposition at the national level, such as the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party — held 26 of the assembly’s 48 seats.

Parties not allied with the governor, such as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner Komeito, held 20 seats while two seats were vacant.

Among the 64 candidates for the 48 seats up for grabs, 12 were elected unopposed on May 29 when official campaigning began. Out of the 12, seven were from the bloc backing Tamaki while five were from the LDP.

A voter casts a ballot at a polling station in Naha in the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly election on Sunday. | KYODO
A voter casts a ballot at a polling station in Naha in the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly election on Sunday. | KYODO

Another focus of the election has been Tamaki’s response to the new coronavirus pandemic, which has inflicted severe damage on the tourism industry — one of the main pillars of the island prefecture’s economy.

The base concentration is a legacy of the U.S. occupation of Okinawa from the end of World War II to 1972.

Local residents have repeatedly shown their opposition to keeping the base in Okinawa in past elections, including the 2018 gubernatorial race. In a prefectural referendum in February last year, more than 70 percent of voters rejected the relocation plan, although the result was not binding on the central government.

But Abe’s administration continues to stick to the plan, maintaining that it is “the only solution” for removing the dangers posed by the Futenma base without undermining the deterrence provided by the Japan-U.S. security alliance.

In recent years, the feud between the prefectural and central governments has evolved into legal battles. But no court has ruled in favor of the prefecture, and the central government’s plans to proceed with construction work were given a boost after the Supreme Court ruled against Okinawa in December 2016 in a dispute over whether preliminary landfill work could proceed.

The central government has been moving ahead with the offshore landfill work at full pace since December 2018. The Defense Ministry expects construction of the new base to take 12 years in total.

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