Commentary / Japan

Okinawa contradictions need to be fixed

by Robert D. Eldridge.

As with prior battles and disasters, no two elections are identical. The circumstances, personalities, issues, dynamic, and challenges — or the combination of them — will always differ to some extent, affecting the outcome. Yet, the Shinzo Abe administration, aided by the U.S. government, insists on employing the same misguided strategy over and over again in Okinawa’s elections, allowing the anti-base “All Okinawa” camp to continue its string of victories.

Indeed, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, with its junior but usually valuable coalition partner Komeito, has lost almost all elections in Japan’s southwestern most prefecture, including two gubernatorial contests (2014 and 2018), three House of Councilors’ elections (2013, 2016 and now 2019), two general elections for the House of Representatives (2014 and 2017), and a recent by-election in April to fill Gov. Denny Tamaki’s vacated Lower House seat.

This is despite the government’s candidates consistently — and objectively speaking — being the more qualified and experienced. This was no more truer than in Sunday’s Upper House contest in Okinawa where Shigenobu Asato, 49, a highly successful and articulate businessman who served as the first president of the Junior Chamber International Japan from Okinawa and on numerous prefectural committees, ran as a member of the LDP against Tetsumi Takara, 65, a recently retired professor of constitutional law at the University of the Ryukyus.

Asato, who became interested in politics due to his son’s medical issues, ran a passionate campaign, generating great interest among the younger generations, particularly those in their 20s to 40s in the first national election of the Reiwa Era. He also had the support of some older voters who agreed with his call for an “end of ideology” in Okinawa: “The future is not about left or right stances, but about what is realistic.”

Unlike previous politicians, Asato was not afraid to discuss the Henoko issue either. “Legally, it is a done deal,” he said at numerous events, adding, “However, politically [in elections and in the prefectural referendum] the people of Okinawa have spoken. We must deal with this matter practically and carefully to move things forward.”

By contrast, Takara’s campaign was dull, as was his demeanor. Predictably, he repeated the mantra that he “strongly opposed” the building of a “new base.” (For readers unaware, it is not a new base. The functions of Marine Corps Airs Station Futenma are being relocated to Camp Schwab; a new base is not being constructed.) However, he did not provide any alternatives or explain how he would prevent the government from moving forward with the plan.

Despite Takara’s age, a factor that made him popular among the older generation, which has higher voter turnout, he lacked experience. His arguments lacked clarity, substance, conviction, specifics and passion. When challenged — as most academics in the classroom are not — his logic fell apart.

This was particular clear in a public debate organized by one of the two local newspapers. Asato, who promised to “[deliver Okinawa’s voice] to the center of national politics,” crushed Takara. Knowing both men over the years, I almost felt sorry for Takara.

So why did Asato lose? There are many reasons, most of which were out of his control. The opposition ran a united front throughout the country, cooperating for the most part in jointly sponsoring candidates, called on voters to express their doubts about the Abe administration’s promise of the viability of the pension system as well as the government’s plan (which predates the current administration) to raise the consumption tax this fall, among other matters.

Also, there was a high level of interference in the elections as well as documented illegal activities by the anti-base forces. This is par for the course in Okinawa — said only half-jokingly to be its own “special zone for elections (senkyo tokku)” due to the way the campaign election law is only selectively (if ever) applied there. For example, Asato’s banners throughout the prefecture were torn down, ripped up and poles broken, presumably by the opposing side. Similarly, someone stood outside his campaign office with a megaphone chanting anti-LDP slogans and disrupting the functions of the office. There were other illegal actions, but space constraints prevent elaborating on them.

In Okinawan elections, conservatives are at a huge disadvantage structurally. Whereas they tend to do battle as a party, the respective leftist parties (who have formed and solidified the “All Okinawa” united front locally over the past five years) are also joined by activists and labor unions (from outside the prefecture, such as the above woman with the megaphone) as well as given strong support by the local media (through acts of omission and commission).

However, the main reason for Asato’s loss is not the illegal actions by his rival’s supporters or other disadvantages but what I call the “contradictions” both in Okinawa policy as well as in his campaign.

With regard to the latter matter, Asato had originally intended to run as governor last year, but due to local and national machinations, he was denied that opportunity (the LDP, of course, lost) and instead reportedly promised a chance to run this time. This scheming to deny him the chance was bad for all involved — him and the person who reluctantly and unsuccessfully took his place, as well as for Okinawa and Japan as a whole.

The main contradiction, however, is in government policy and the narratives about Okinawa. Namely, Futenma is called — by not only activists but also ruling party members and government leaders — the most dangerous airfield in the world, against all common sense. Even Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the first day of the campaign disappointingly made such a statement. However, it is not. This myth has taken on a legacy of its own.

The second contradiction is the government’s stance on the relocation of the functions of Futenma to Camp Schwab (Henoko), which it describes as the “best plan” and “only plan.” It is neither. Indeed, it is the worst one, as common sense shows (the 30-to-40 year relocation of Futenma is taking longer than the 20 years (1952-1972) it took to actually revert Okinawa. Most people in the U.S. government recognize that to be the case, but their collective silence is taken by the Japanese government as a sign of support, thus perpetuating the contradiction and masochistically leading to further losses at the polls.

Until these two contradictions or untruths are addressed, conservative candidates in Okinawa will have to squirm and maneuver, avoiding the issue (even Asato stated he was neither for or against the Henoko plan), as they go through the motions of a campaign only to lose a contest most knew from the beginning they could not win.

This situation probably fits into the definition of insanity that is usually attributed to Albert Einstein: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

That “Tokyo knows better” than local areas has once again been shown to be a falsehood that has long necessitated correcting. Asato, who should have been allowed to run last year, was the conservatives’ best — and last — hope for Okinawa. Unfortunately the ruling parties have no one left, just as what I call the “twin divides” (locally and between the prefecture and the central government) get bigger and deeper.

Robert D. Eldridge is the author of “The Origins of the Bilateral Okinawa Problem: Okinawa in Postwar U.S.-Japan Relations, 1945-1952” (Routledge, 2001) and a former political advisor to the U.S. Marine Corps in Japan.

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