Nago City Mayor Susumu Inamine cruised to reelection on Sunday, despite extraordinarily heavy-handed electioneering toward the end of the campaign by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which backed the unsuccessful challenge of Bunshin Suematsu.
Inamine’s 56-44 percent win marked a strong rebuke of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose government has pulled out all stops to implement long-stalled plans for a new US Marine air base in Nago’s Henoko district. The new facility would replace the US Marine Air Station Futenma, which is dangerously located in the heavily-populated center of Ginowan City.
Late last month, Abe was basking in the glow of a supposed breakthrough toward implementation of the Henoko project, as Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima authorized a land reclamation project that is required before facility construction can begin. Many voters saw Nakaima’s landfill decision as a flip-flop from his long-standing view that the Futenma operations should be transferred to a facility outside of Okinawa.
Despite Suematsu’s efforts to focus on economic development issues, backed by promises from the Abe government of unprecedented levels of economic aid, the race for mayor became a referendum on the Henoko project.
Both Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera reiterated in Tokyo today (January 20) that the Nago City election results will not slow plans to implement the Henoko project.
Inamine has a different idea. He stated at a press conference today that he “will exercise his authority as mayor” to block the plan. Japanese officials have long-maintained in private that opposition from the mayor of Nago would pose perhaps insurmountable hurdles to the Henoko project.
In Washington, the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon thus far have not issued any statements about the Nago election results. Just last week, both Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel reiterated praise for the Abe-Nakaima landfill agreement.
Patrick Cronin, an Asia security specialist at the Center for a New American Security, called the Nago election result “a setback,” and “one more hurdle to the realization of alliance plans to replace Futenma.” However, he said, “Prime Minister Abe’s political strength and deteriorating regional relations suggest Japan and the United States will ultimately be able to manage local concerns.”
Others are not so sure.
Professor Mike Mochizuki of George Washington University, who has long expressed doubts about the political feasibility and operational necessity of the envisioned Henoko air base, says that “the election results shows how strong local opposition is” to the plan.
Inamine stated shortly after the election results were announced that he will “reject any procedure, application, or consultation” for the land reclamation project.
Analysts say the statement is significant because plans for the project call for a series of studies and tests over the next year, starting as early as March, in preparation for the actual land-fill, which will involve importing vast amounts of dirt from outside of Okinawa. Attempts to block the preliminary studies could lead to a confrontation with Tokyo earlier than most analysts had expected.
The result could be a protracted legal struggle.
Meanwhile, despite a plunge in his approval rating, Governor Nakaima remains a formidable figure, and he continues to insist that he favors the closure of Futenma and the relocation of its operations – even if only temporarily – outside of Okinawa.
Nakaima says that during his talks with Abe in December, he won a commitment from the prime minister to seek the closure of Futenma within five years.
The United States says that Futenma must remain open until the Henoko replacement facility is operational. With the election of Inamine, and his expected challenges to the project, completion of the Henoko air base would take considerably longer than the current estimate of 10 years.
The political dilemma for both Washington and Tokyo is that a temporary relocation of Futenma’s operations outside of Okinawa would undermine the argument that Henoko is the only viable alternative to the current Futenma site.
For Abe, failure to seriously pursue closure of the Futenma base within five years would break his pledge to Nakaima. But pursuit of a temporary site for Futenma’s operations outside of Okinawa would break the united front among US and Japanese officials that Futenma must and will inevitably remain open unless and until the Henoko air base is operational.
“My fear is that both Tokyo and Washington will continue to stick to the charade that the coastal landfill Henoko base will be built as planned,” Mochizuki says. “If the Japanese and US governments continue to stubbornly stick to the Henoko plan, it could give rise to a stridently anti-US base governor in Okinawa after Governor Nakaima retires, and weaken Okinawan support for more strategically critical US bases on Okinawa, like Kadena Air Base.”