In the first of several Okinawa elections this year with national political and defense implications, voters in Nago go to the polls Jan. 23 to choose a mayor.

Their choice boils down to a candidate who is generally in favor of the relocation plans for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, from a congested area of Ginowan to Nago's Henoko coastal district, or one who is adamantly against it.

Depending on the victor, the long-controversial project — already years behind schedule — could either continue to move forward as currently planned or face further delays. The latter possibility would create political complications for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and affect U.S.-Japan defense relations.

The election pits incumbent Mayor Taketoyo Toguchi, backed by the pro-relocation plan Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, against Yohei Kishimoto, a former Nago city councilman supported by the Constitutional Democratic Party, the Japanese Communist Party and other opposition parties.

Toguchi, who has not publicly come out against the relocation plan, is seeking a second term and says only that he’ll watch ongoing construction of the Futenma replacement facility carefully. Kishimoto opposes the project and wants it stopped.

Toguchi won his first term in February 2018, and in December of that year the Japanese government began landfill work for Henoko’s runway in the waters off of Camp Schwab. The U.S. and Japan formally agreed to build the Henoko facility in 2005 but strong local opposition thwarted the project, and the estimated completion date kept getting pushed back.

Progress remains slow, though now due to engineering difficulties rather than local political opposition. As of the end of November, only 8.6% of the soil needed for the project had been poured in. In November 2020, a report by the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said that, while the completion date was supposed to be 2030, costs were skyrocketing due to all of the delays and it appeared unlikely the project would ever be completed.

Nago Mayor Taketoyo Toguchi (right) meets with former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in Okinawa Prefecture on Dec. 5. | KYODO
Nago Mayor Taketoyo Toguchi (right) meets with former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in Okinawa Prefecture on Dec. 5. | KYODO

A Toguchi victory would likely mean quicker mayoral approval of any future permits the construction project may need, and no legal challenges by the city to the project. It would also spell trouble for Kishimoto's backers, namely Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki and his “all Okinawa” coalition of supporters. They range from traditional left-wing parties opposed to the U.S.-Japan alliance as a whole to those who, like Tamaki, say they support, or recognize the need for, the U.S.-Japan alliance in general but oppose the Henoko relocation project.

Tamaki faces his own re-election challenge, as a gubernatorial election must be held by the end of September. He’s expected to go up against an opponent who will at least have the support of the central government, if not formal affiliation with the ruling parties.

A Kishimoto victory could mean Nago's refusal to grant permission for changes in construction permits and could lead to legal action. That, in turn, would mean more delays and diplomatic headaches for the Kishida administration at a time when regional tension with China is rising. Criticism is also growing within opposition parties, and even among rivals within the LDP, over Kishida’s handling of Okinawa. A Kishimoto victory would give Tamaki’s coalition a boost for the local and prefectural elections that follow.

Other key votes this year include the Nago Municipal Assembly elections, which must be held by late September. There, a vote that results in a majority opposed to the Henoko plan might also affect the construction timetable.

The mayoral and assembly elections in Ginowan, where the Futenma base is currently located are also set to be held by the end of September. Political pressure on the central government to close Futenma as quickly as possible could intensify and create frictions with the central government, depending on who wins the mayor's chair and the majority of assembly seats. For example, a Ginowan mayor against the Henoko plan and the U.S. bases might be more vocal in demanding Futenma not only be closed but also that all U.S. Marines leave Okinawa.

Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki (right) speaks in support of Nago mayoral candidate Yohei Kishimoto in Naha on Dec. 16. | KYODO
Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki (right) speaks in support of Nago mayoral candidate Yohei Kishimoto in Naha on Dec. 16. | KYODO

One the other hand, a mayor who favors or is neutral toward the Henoko plan might only call on Tokyo to close Futenma as quickly as possible and say little else.

The Feb. 27 Ishigaki mayoral election could also impact Japan in the area of national defense, as controversy over a planned Ground Self-Defense Forces missile base is the key issue in that election, with a pro-base mayor seeking re-election.

The results of these elections will serve as indicators as to whether Tamaki’s coalition — formed four years ago to get him into office, after the previous governor died — is still strong enough to win him a second term when the governor's election is held by the end of September. If re-elected, Tamaki would likely continue to challenge the prime minister on the Henoko plan. A candidate backed by the LDP, however, would likely be keen to see the project completed quickly.

Indeed, the Nago mayoral poll is only the beginning of a busy year for Okinawa politics that will be closely watched across the country given its potential to impact national security and the prefecture's relationship with Tokyo.

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