This year’s gubernatorial election in Okinawa Prefecture is the 13th since reversion to Japan in 1972 and the 14th since the public election of the chief executive of the Ryukyu Islands, the position’s name during the U.S. administration of the islands.

If one goes back to that election in 1968, then 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of Okinawa voters being able to directly chose their governor.

How have they voted during these five decades?

First of all, unlike the image of Okinawa always being on the left politically, conservatives have dominated 28 years versus 22 for so-called progressives. In fact, Okinawans tend to be conservative in their attitudes and voting. However, the division is unclear — those politicians elected with conservative support quite often adopt postures critical of the military bases and the central government, while those elected with leftist support usually have to adopt moderate positions.

There have been seven governors to date. Most have served two full four-year terms, for a total of eight years each. One (Junji Nishime) served a total of 12 years. Two others served less than one full term. One (Takeshi Onaga) died in office, thus necessitating an early election, and the other, Koichi Taira, served two years before illness caused him to resign.

Being governor of Okinawa is at times an unenviable position and must be a physically tough and emotionally demanding position. Most of the governors have been hospitalized at one point during their terms for exhaustion or other problems, and another, Shuhei Higa, appointed in 1952, died in office during the height of the island-wide protests against the expropriation of land by the U.S. military without proper compensation.

Because the gubernatorial election was already planned for this year (and his health was in doubt), Onaga’s passing did not necessarily cause chaos for the conservative camp that was opposing him, only uncertainty. Its only calculations had to do with who would be running from the leftist camp and who the conservatives should run to oppose him.

However, Onaga’s “sudden” passing did throw the leftists into panic and it was some time before they could decide on a united front, or “All Okinawa,” candidate, in part because they had avoided imagining having to run a campaign without Onaga. So much so, that they currently invoke his memory wherever there is a rally, speech or interview, and even placed one of his hats on the table at the event announcing their candidate on Aug. 29.

In contrast, the conservatives’ candidate, Atsushi Sakima, announced his candidacy officially on Sept. 3 but had already submitted his resignation as mayor of Ginowan on Aug. 14 in order to run.

Sakima should be able to build a strong team, especially if he follows the tradition of appointing two vice governors with their respective specializations and portfolios. In addition, he will have the full support of the central government and ruling parties. For these reason (and some others), we thus may have an extremely stable period in Okinawa, Japan and U.S. relations despite the structural and other problems affecting the relationship. In particular, it will be the first time since 2003 that the United States, Japan, Okinawa Prefecture, the city of Ginowan and the city of Nago (the site of the relocated functions of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma) are on the same page. In this sense, Sakima is the necessary candidate.

The fact that the relocation to Camp Schwab (a very stupid idea) and closure of Futenma (an even stupider idea) has taken this long (almost 22 years have elapsed since the original recommendations were made by the Special Action Committee on Okinawa in December 1996) has been in part due to the lack of alignment between those five concerned entities over the past 15 years. But the handling of the Futenma relocation issue has also caused the disconnect, too, leading to regular ousters of either pro- or anti-relocation mayors and governors.

At one point, in what was the ultimate irony, during the Hatoyama administration (2009-2010), the central government was actually seeking relocation outside of the prefecture, while the conservative Okinawa Prefectural Government had already agreed to relocation within the prefecture.

Because Sakima has been the mayor of Ginowan, which has long called for the relocation and closure of Futenma, he has not needed to take a public stand on the relocation, unlike his Nago counterpart or even the governor of Okinawa. However, he did have to now as a gubernatorial candidate. (Incidentally, this is the sixth gubernatorial election since the Futenma relocation issue has arisen.)

In contrast, his main opponent in the gubernatorial race, Denny Tamaki, is said to have been long opposed to the relocation. For the left, he was the convenient candidate (but certainly not the best one).

I myself do not have a strong opinion about Tamaki. He reportedly has a lot of scandals and contradictions, both personal and political, and is far from the clean politician the left likes to portray itself as having.

Despite these problems, his youthful and friendly appearance (at 58, he is actually four years older than Sakima, but the latter’s conservative demeanor may have added some years to his image) made him popular among many voters. Having been a local radio personality, a member of the municipal assembly in the city of Okinawa and of the Diet’s Lower House, he has greater name recognition. Older members of his support group, however, questioned whether he had the smarts to become governor. Indeed, other than opposition to the bases, it is unclear what his policies truly are.

But opposition to the bases is not policy; it is a stance. Indeed, it is a luxury, as so-called leftist candidates know that money will flow to Okinawa from the central government and U.S. military regardless.

In fact, until recently, the more opposition there was, the greater the payoffs. The Okinawa Prefectural Government and local communities, and their politicians, have all played this game skillfully, which the central government unfortunately encouraged for decades due to guilt, gullibility and gutlessness. However, the Abe administration finally began to change its approach following the crushing defeat of its gubernatorial candidate four years ago.

This ame to muchi, or carrots and sticks, approach to Okinawa has been extremely painful to watch over the years from both angles and suggests a fundamental lack of knowledge and networks among the Abe and prior administrations. It also reflects the poor quality of Okinawa’s elected officials who see their job as either complaining or asking for money, and not facilitating a more sustainable, vibrant relationship reflecting the prefecture’s true potential.

The candidate elected will be responsible for working with the central government in devising the next (sixth to date) 10-year economic development plan beginning in 2023. Voters have the chance to influence the direction by whom they choose, and thus for both economic and social reasons, as well as for alliance management reasons, the Okinawa gubernatorial election is an important one for the prefecture, for the central government, for the Japan-U.S. alliance and for the Indo-Pacific region as a whole.

Robert D. Eldridge is a visiting researcher at Hosei University and Okinawa International University, and the author of works on Okinawa, including “Post-Reversion Okinawa.”

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.