Voters in Nago, northern Okinawa Island, threw down the gauntlet on Jan. 19 when they reelected as mayor the incumbent, Susumu Inamine, a staunch opponent of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the congested city of Ginowan in the south to the Henoko district of their town.

Abe thought that promising Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima $25 billion of central government largesse over the next eight years would seal the deal, but even such lavish palm-greasing couldn’t convince locals the proposed base is a good idea.

Although Mayor Inamine has vowed to block the base, Tokyo simply isn’t heeding local voices and is pushing forward with the relocation plan. Given that democracy is among the shared values that are the foundation of U.S.-Japan relations, the looming confrontations between the central and local governments over Henoko will prove awkward for alliance managers.

Yet the election result is not surprising, since most Okinawans resent that they have been made to assume a disproportionate share of Japan’s base-hosting burden.

Opposition to the U.S. bases intensified after then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama reneged on his 2009 campaign promise to relocate the Futenma base outside of Okinawa. Okinawans had had their hopes raised and then dashed as his pledge to revisit the bilateral 2006 “roadmap” on reducing the U.S. military footprint in Okinawa was ambushed by Japanese foreign ministry officials and American pressure.

Base advocates never tire of pointing out that some Okinawans do very well by these arrangements, and that many islanders benefit from the patronage of soldiers and the central government’s generous inducements.

True, Okinawa is Japan’s poorest prefecture and the one most dependent on central government subsidies, but as The Beatles succinctly put it, “Money can’t buy me love.”

Indeed, Gov. Nakaima is widely castigated by Okinawans, who see him as a modern Judas who sold them out. They don’t favor the cash-and-carry style of democracy the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has institutionalized in Japan — and neither did they appreciate LDP Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba’s bullying, telling Nago citizens that the base issue is “a central government matter.”

They also bristled when Ishiba dangled an additional ¥50 billion carrot on election eve — proving himself inept not only by angering anti-base opponents, but also by drawing the ire of pro-base advocates because he embarrassed them with his anti-democratic blustering and shameless venality. Telling locals their voice doesn’t count came a month after Ishiba likened anti-secrecy demonstrators to terrorists.

Where does the LDP dig up these misfits?

Team Abe seems unusually flustered by the possibility that Yoichi Masuzoe, its front-running candidate for the Feb. 9 Tokyo gubernatorial elections, might not win.

Morihiro Hosokawa, a former governor of Kumamoto Prefecture in Kyushu, who was prime minister in 1993, is running on an anti-nuclear platform and has a shot at winning despite the LDP pulling out all the stops to defeat him. His main asset is the backing of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi — but will that suffice to offset his lackluster presence and comments criticizing the decision to host the 2020 Olympics, and the subsequent flip-flop he performed? Doubts are gathering.

From Africa, a flustered Abe declared that the election should not focus on nuclear energy, while in Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was mudslinging, reminding voters that Hosokawa stepped down in 1993 due to a financial scandal. He neglected to mention that the LDP was neck deep in that scandal, causing it to lose power for the first time since 1955 — to a coalition of small parties headed by Hosokawa.

Tokyo voters must find it rich that the LDP, given its own insalubrious history, is invoking corruption allegations to tarnish an opponent.

Koizumi was Abe’s boss and mentor from 2001 until Abe became premier in 2006, but since last summer he has become an active anti-nuclear energy campaigner. Koizumi’s rock-star presence is unnerving Abe and driving Hosokawa’s campaign. Koizumi is a rare breed, a politician who, in 2005, demonstrated his willingness to risk power for what he believed in — calling a snap election, ousting party foes and campaigning on postal reform. He won in a landslide.

Now Koizumi is trying to frame the Tokyo elections in the same stark terms: Voting for Hosokawa is a vote for reform and a nuclear-free Japan, while a vote for Masuzoe/Abe supports irresponsible vested interests opposed to reform and eager to restart nuclear reactors.

Even if Masuzoe is seen as the LDP’s Trojan pony quietly supporting Abe and the nuclear village’s “back to business as usual” agenda, he has countered Hosokawa by proposing a significant increase in renewable energy.

Ironically, the only candidate favoring Abe’s position on nuclear energy is the former head of the Air Self-Defense Force, Toshio Tamogami, a reactionary crackpot.

It seems unlikely that the election will serve as a referendum on nuclear energy, as voters weigh other policy issues and the lines are blurred because almost all the candidates are to varying degrees campaigning against nuclear energy.

But the timing of the Tokyo vote is awkward, as the Cabinet favors quickly revving up idled reactors. Abe had hoped to get the nuclear watchdog agency to sign off on safety and then present reactor restarts as a foregone conclusion — but this poll is now putting his nuclear advocacy in the limelight.

Consequently, Abe has postponed announcing his new national energy strategy — which is based on retaining nuclear energy — because it would be the political equivalent of an own goal.

Meanwhile, Tokyo Electric Power Co., operator of the radiation-spewing Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, is also in the spotlight because the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is its fourth-largest shareholder and the capital’s governor could scupper plans to restart the seven reactors at Tepco’s huge Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture.

The plot thickens, as the industry ministry’s mid-January approval of Tepco’s financial rehabilitation plan is based on reactor restarts in Niigata in July 2014 — with the company threatening a 10 percent hike in electricity prices if it is not allowed to do so. Amazing chutzpah for a company to which most Japanese wouldn’t grant a steam-shovel license, much less one to operate nuclear reactors.

The pro-forma ministry approval was needed because the government injected about $13 billion into Tepco in 2012 and has since shifted massive decontamination and decommissioning costs to taxpayers’ shoulders. Now, following the ministry’s nod, Tepco is lined up to receive another $38 billion of taxpayer money.

Since Tepco’s influential lenders and investors vigorously oppose bankruptcy because they don’t want to suffer losses, taxpayers have to ante up. And quasi-nationalized Tepco retains managerial autonomy — a curious call given its bumbling performance.

Niigata Gov. Hirohiko Izumida is not impressed and recently deplored Tepco’s inadequate culture of safety.

Abe’s nightmare is Hosokawa and Izumida derailing the reactor restart express and thus imperiling his plans to revive Japan’s nuclear industry. But can Koizumi work his magic again? Probably not, but a week can be a long time in politics.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.