Nago’s mayoral race and the Henoko facility

The defeat of the incumbent mayor of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, at the hands of a contender backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition in Sunday’s election marks a severe setback for Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who has relied on the “popular will” of local voters in opposing the national government’s construction of a replacement facility in the Henoko area of Nago city for the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station. The loss of the Onaga-backed mayor, who opposed Futenma’s relocation, may spell trouble for his own chances in December’s gubernatorial race. The Abe administration, however, should not take the election outcome as an unambiguous thumbs-up by local voters for the base. Instead of rushing to accelerate the construction work, the government should continue efforts to win Okinawa residents’ support of the project.

Since the relocation of the Futenma base — which is located in the midst of Ginowan city in central Okinawa — was agreed on by the Japanese and U.S. governments in 1996 and Nago was subsequently named as the site for the new facility, Nago voters have been sharply divided over the project. A plebiscite held in 1997 showed a majority of Nago voters opposing construction of the new facility in the city’s Henoko area. Opponents and proponents of the project have both won mayoral elections over the past 20 years. Mayor Susumu Inamine, who was first elected in 2010 on a platform opposing the Henoko facility’s construction, was seeking a third term.

The winner in Sunday’s election, Taketoyo Toguchi, a former local assemblyman backed by the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito alliance, avoided making his position clear on the Henoko facility’s construction and instead focused on beefing up education and welfare measures, and promotion of the local economy through dialogue with the national government. He maintained that he would “closely watch” the development of the legal battle between the state and the prefecture over the Henoko construction.

The LDP mobilized senior lawmakers and Cabinet ministers in the campaign for Toguchi. Komeito, which did not take a stance in the last mayoral election in 2014, threw its support behind Toguchi this time, but the party’s local chapter kept mum on its position over the Henoko facility. An exit poll by Kyodo News showed that more than 30 percent of Nago voters who cast their ballots for Toguchi opposed the construction of the new facility. Moriyuki Teruya, head of the LDP’s Okinawa chapter, said he did not consider the election result as an endorsement of the Henoko project by local voters.

The construction of the Henoko facility has in fact been going on since last year irrespective of the continued opposition of the mayor and Onaga. Following a Supreme Court decision in 2016 that invalidated Onaga’s revocation of the prefecture’s permit — which had been issued by his predecessor — for land reclamation off the Henoko area, the government began reclamation work to build the site for the new facility in April last year. While the prefecture filed a lawsuit with the Naha District Court last July seeking to halt the work, the construction remains ongoing amid protest demonstrations by opponents at the site.

After Inamine became mayor, Nago stopped receiving national government grants that are paid to municipalities for cooperating with the ongoing reorganization of the U.S. military presence in Japan. During the race, Toguchi said he would seek the grants if elected, and criticized Inamine for focusing too much on opposing the Henoko construction to the neglect of other policies for local residents. It wouldn’t be surprising if some Nago voters felt that Inamine’s opposition would not stop the Henoko construction.

The Nago race was closely watched as a proxy battle between Onaga, who has engaged in an all-out confrontation with the national government over the Henoko project since he was elected in 2014 on a promise of halting the construction, and the Abe administration, which has proceeded with the project on a permit granted by Onaga’s predecessor, Hirokazu Nakaima, in 2013. The mayoral election was seen as a precursor to the gubernatorial election, in which Onaga, whose term comes up in December, will be seeking re-election.

Onaga based his opposition to the Henoko construction on the popular will of Okinawa voters as represented by the victories in recent key elections — including his own — by candidates rejecting the project. Inamine’s defeat in the Sunday’s election marks a clear setback for Onaga that could cloud his re-election chances in the gubernatorial race. But that may not mean that the “complicated” popular sentiment of Okinawans toward the U.S. bases issue — as noted by the mayor-elect — has turned in favor of construction of the Futenma replacement facility in Nago.