In the city assembly election Sunday in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, candidates opposed to the Abe administration’s push to move the functions of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan to Nago’s Henoko area retained a majority of seats.
The outcome shows that Nago voters’ opposition to the Henoko relocation plan remains strong despite the government’s economic steps designed to win their support.
The administration should realize that its push for the relocation plan continues to divide local communities in Okinawa. It should seriously consider a plan that would be acceptable to the majority of Okinawan residents.
Although supporters of the Henoko plan gained one more assembly seat, the election result marks a blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and will likely impact the Nov. 16 Okinawa gubernatorial election. Mayor Takeshi Onaga of Naha, an opponent of the Henoko plan, is expected to take on Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, who in a turnaround last December approved the central government’s plan to reclaim land off Henoko to build the Futenma replacement facility.
In the Nago election, 35 candidates vied for the assembly’s 27 seats. Candidates who oppose the plan won 16 seats — one less than their pre-election strength — while those who accept the plan took 11. Among the 16 winners were two candidates from New Komeito, the junior partner of the Liberal Democratic Party in the ruling coalition. Neither one necessarily supports Mayor Susumu Inamine on issues other than the Henoko plan. The mayor was re-elected in January on a platform that included opposition to the relocation plan. The 14 supporters of the mayor still constitute a majority of the assembly.
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the Abe administration would steadily push ahead with the project to relocate the Futenma air base to the Henoko area, irrespective of the Nago election outcome.
The administration should not ignore the fact that Sunday’s result marked the fourth consecutive time that voters have shown strong opposition to the relocation of Futenma functions to Henoko — following the mayoral and assembly elections in 2010 and Inamine’s re-election in January.
It should also realize that trying to buy the support of Okinawans won’t work. Sunday’s results came about despite the Cabinet Office’s fiscal 2015 budgetary requests featuring ¥379.4 billion in spending to develop Okinawa’s economy, up by ¥29.3 billion from the current fiscal year.
The shutdown of the Futenma base, located in a densely populated area of Ginowan, will certainly remove dangers posed to residents in the city. But many Okinawans believe that building a replacement facility on the island will do nothing to ease their burden of having to host the bulk of the U.S. military presence in Japan.
The Futenma relocation question dates back to 1996 when the Japanese and U.S. governments agreed on the realignment of U.S. military bases in Okinawa amid a rise in local anti-base sentiment triggered by the rape of a schoolgirl by three American servicemen the previous year. Eighteen years on, the issue continues to fan resentment among Okinawans.
The Abe administration should keep in mind that heightened resentment could harm not only relations between Tokyo and Okinawa but ultimately also the security arrangement between Japan and the United States.
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