Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party appears to be fighting an uphill battle to remain in that powerful post as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prepares to reshuffle his Cabinet in September — as well as the top posts of the party that he heads.

Ishiba’s efforts to remain loyal to Abe seem to have proven counterproductive in Abe’s eyes, as there are growing signs the LDP will end up losing three consecutive gubernatorial elections — in Shiga, Fukushima and Okinawa.

On July 13, Taizo Mikazuki, a former Lower House member of the No. 1 opposition Democratic Party of Japan, defied predictions and won the Shiga gubernatorial race, defeating Takashi Koyari, who was backed by the LDP and its coalition partner New Komeito.

Morale is not high within the LDP for the next gubernatorial election in Fukushima (Oct. 26). Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has confided that he can’t think of anybody who could beat incumbent Gov. Yuhei Sato if Sato seeks re-election. The LDP headquarters has not yet decided whom it will field as a candidate for the party to support.

No candidates appear as well known as Sato in the prefecture, home of the ill-fated Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant of Tokyo Electric Power Co., which was severely damaged by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

A high-ranking LDP official suggested that if the LDP carries out a confrontational campaign, it will inflame sentiment against nuclear power generation and make it harder to restart nuclear power stations in parts of the country whose operations have been suspended since the Fukushima disaster. Ishiba has long called the Fukushima election “one of the most important elections,” but it has become clear that he has failed to take effective measures to win it.

Abe and Suga are also infuriated by circumstances surrounding the Okinawa gubernatorial election scheduled for Nov. 16. Late last year, incumbent Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima reversed his long-standing position and approved the government’s plan to reclaim land in the sea off the Henoko coast in the city of Nago as a relocation site for the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the densely populated city of Ginowan.

This about-face of Nakaima, who was re-elected in 2010 on his call for moving the Futenma base out of Okinawa, changed the political atmosphere of Okinawa. In the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly, opposition groups, in a Jan. 10 plenary session, successfully passed a resolution demanding the governor’s resignation. Nine days later, the citizens of Nago re-elected Mayor Susumu Inamine, who staunchly opposes the proposed relocation of the Futenma functions to his city.

With his health problems, Nakaima is now beleaguered, as it has emerged that Mayor Takeshi Onaga of Naha, Okinawa’s capital, will enter the gubernatorial race. Onaga is supported by the five opposition groups in the prefectural assembly: the Social Democratic Party, the Japan Communist Party, the Okinawa Social Mass Party, the People’s Life Party and the Prefectural Citizens’ Network.

In addition, 11 LDP members of the Naha Municipal Assembly have revolted against their party’s prefectural federation to come out in support of Onaga. Moreover, the New Komeito prefectural headquarters has friendly relations with Onaga and insists that Futenma’s functions be moved out of Okinawa.

With one opinion poll after another showing a much higher rate of approval for Onaga than for Nakaima, the LDP thought of giving up on Nakaima and supporting Onaga. It once asked former LDP Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka, now estranged from the LDP leadership, to use his longtime relationship with Onaga to persuade the Naha mayor to drop his opposition to the Futenma relocation project. But Nonaka failed.

When Kozaburo Nishime, an LDP Lower House member who now heads the party’s Okinawa prefectural federation, declared his support for Nakaima, the latter made clear his intention to run in the gubernatorial election. [The LDP headquarters on Aug. 26 decided to officially support Nakaima as a candidate in the election at the request of the LDP’s Okinawa prefectural federation.]

Mikio Shimoji, head of the local political group Sozo (Political Group of Okinawa Revolution) and a former minister in charge of postal service privatization, has also expressed interest in running.

Since the LDP-backed candidate lost in Shiga, the government has offered both carrot and stick to Okinawa.

The carrot consists of measures to relieve the U.S. military base burden on Okinawans. Fifteen Lockheed KC-130 Hercules military transport planes were scheduled to be transferred from the Futenma base to Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, by the end of August. Another measure is to expand training areas in Japan for the Bell Boeing MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, now limited to Okinawa. These steps, however, carry the danger of spreading opposition to the U.S. military bases throughout Japan.

The stick consists of moving up the start of reclamation work off Henoko. Previously it was not expected to begin before yearend. Protesters in canoes and kayaks have organized demonstrations.

On July 25, it was confirmed that former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was aboard one of the boats. He had pledged to move the Futenma functions “at least to an area outside of Okinawa” when he came to power in 2009 but failed in his attempt.

A report sent by the Japan Coast Guard to the prime minister’s office quoted Hatoyama as saying, “There will be a big impact if I am the first person arrested” [for demonstrating against construction of the new base].

Abe seems to be facing the worst scenario: defeat in the Okinawa gubernatorial election, possible chaos in Nago and mounting sentiment throughout Japan against the U.S. military bases.

Nakaima’s loss would be tantamount to Okinawan citizens’ demanding the withdrawal of his approval to start new base construction in the Henoko area.

Since the turn of the century, Japan has had a number of short-lived governments, primarily over a consumption tax hike and the problems related to the U.S. bases in Okinawa. The issue of nuclear power generation was added after the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster.

Abe inherits all three difficult issues. He will soon have to decide whether to permit the restart of the Sendai nuclear power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture, which, the Nuclear Regulation Authority recently determined, meets new safety standards. In early December, he must decide whether to raise the consumption tax rate from 8 percent to 10 percent, effective Oct. 1 next year.

The timing of these difficult decisions overlaps scheduled gubernatorial elections in Fukushima and Okinawa.

Abe’s approval rating dropped sharply when he changed — in the middle of the campaign for the Shiga prefectural gubernatorial election, which Abe’s party lost — past governments’ interpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution so that Japan can exercise the right to collective self-defense. The rift between the LDP and New Komeito over collective self-defense is surprisingly wide.

If Abe stumbles in Okinawa, it will negatively impact the Japan-U.S. alliance. Thus the gubernatorial election in Japan’s southernmost prefecture looks like a gigantic crevasse in Abe’s path.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the August issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.

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