As the campaign kicked off for the Nov. 16 Okinawa gubernatorial election, the Abe administration maintains that it will go ahead with land reclamation off the Henoko district of Nago to build a replacement facility for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, regardless of who wins the race, because of the go-ahead given last year by Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima.

But the election can effectively serve as Okinawan voters’ verdict on the controversial project, which has sharply divided local residents for years. The national government needs to listen to what the voters say at the polls.

The key feature of the election is the split of conservative political forces in Okinawa. Nakaima, who is seeking a third term with support from the Liberal Democratic Party, is being challenged by three candidates including Takeshi Onaga, the former Naha mayor and secretary general of the LDP’s local chapter who led Nakaima’s campaign headquarters in the 2010 election. While Nakaima pushes for relocation of the Futenma base in Ginowan to Nago, Onaga says he will use all means to halt construction of the new facility in Henoko.

Last December, Nakaima came under severe criticism when he reneged on his 2010 campaign pledge that he would seek relocation of Futenma to outside of Okinawa by giving his approval to the national government’s reclamation plan off Henoko. In January’s Nago mayoral election, the incumbent who opposes relocation to Henoko was re-elected, and opponents retained a majority in the Nago assembly race in September.

The upcoming election is the first occasion for voters throughout Okinawa to hand down their judgment on the governor’s decision.

Relocation of the Futenma base, located in the middle of a densely populated area of Ginowan, has been a pending issue since 1996, when the Japanese and U.S. governments, on the back of strong sentiment against the U.S. military bases — which had been triggered by the rape of a local schoolgirl by American servicemen the previous year — agreed on a realignment of the bases on the island as a measure to reduce the local burden of hosting the bulk of the U.S. military presence in Japan. But the condition attached to the promised return of the Futenma site — that a substitute facility be built in Okinawa — has divided Okinawa residents and obstructed the project — even after the government officially chose Henoko as the site of the new airfield in 1999.

In a bid to move the Futenma relocation forward, the government has offered a series of measures to promote Okinawa’s economy. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised at least ¥300 billion in government spending on Okinawa every year through fiscal 2021 just before Nakaima gave his nod to the reclamation off Henoko. The local business community has endorsed Nakaima’s re-election bid. But Komeito, the LDP’s junior partner in the ruling coalition, has decided not to endorse Nakaima and let its supporters decide for themselves.

As the race for the November election was shaping up, the national government in August kicked off seabed drilling in waters off Henoko by making the area off-limits to protesters, and is now soliciting bidders for contracts to build new coastal revetments. These steps apparently reflect the Abe administration’s resolve to move ahead with the reclamation no matter what the election outcome.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, in a speech Thursday in Tokyo just as the Okinawa race began, said the national government’s policy will not change even if the head of the local government changes. He repeated that the relocation to Henoko is “the best effective solution” to remove the dangers posed by the Futenma base to local residents.

Still, the government should realize that the relocation project will face a rough road ahead if it is rejected by the people in Okinawa. The biggest reason why the Futenma relocation hasn’t moved forward for 18 years is the inherent contradiction that the 1996 agreement poses by replacing one base with another inside the prefecture. Many Okinawans understandably do not consider this arrangement to be a reduction in the burden they are forced to shoulder. The election will reflect the local voters’ latest judgment on the divisive issue.

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