It will be back to the future for the citizens of Okinawa’s Ginowan City today, when they cast ballots in the hot race for mayor. The outcome could have a major impact on the controversy over the large US military presence on Okinawa, Japan’s southern-most and poorest prefecture.
Twenty years ago, Ginowan was briefly thrust on the world’s center stage, as the rape of a young woman by three US servicemen led to large demonstrations, reflecting long-simmering anger that Okinawa bears a disproportionate share of the burden for hosting US military facilities in Japan. Washington and Tokyo briefly quelled the high-strung mood on Okinawa by agreeing to close the US Marine Air Station Futenma, dangerously located in the center of Ginowan.
There was a catch: closure of Futenma was tied to the creation of a replacement facility from which the Futenma operations would carry on.
A large majority of Okinawans favor locating a replacement facility outside of the prefecture. Okinawa comprises just 0.6 percent of Japan’s total land mass, but the US military facilities in the prefecture utilize a full 75 percent of the land used by the US military in all of Japan.
Tokyo and Washington think otherwise, and several years ago settled on construction on a new facility in the Henoko district of Nago. AV-shaped double runway would start from US Marine Camp Schwab, and extend with the help of landfill into Henoko Bay.
The Henoko plan has sparked a political backlash on Okinawa, sending shivers down the spine of the US-Japan security alliance. An unusual coalition of conservative forces long-associated with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has joined with more left-leaning organizations in opposition. Governor Takeshi Onaga, an LDP stalwart of yesteryear, was swept into office in November 2014 on the basis of his promise to do everything in his power to halt implementation of the Henoko plan. Lower House elections for the national Diet held the following month saw all LDP candidates lose in the races for Okinawa’s four seats.
Governor Onaga has since reversed the decision of his predecessor to approve permits for the landfill projects necessary for construction of the new runways. The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided to proceed anyway, prompting Onaga to sue the central government.
BACK TO GINOWAN: Eyes have shifted back to Ginowan because the mayoralty contest has become a proxy for the battle between Tokyo and Washington on the one side, and political forces backing Onaga on the other.
American and Japanese officials argue that closing the Futenma air station will reduce the base-hosting burden on Okinawa, and that the new facility is critical to maintaining the US deterrent in East Asia against an increasingly assertive China. The Abe government is supporting incumbent mayor Atsushi Sakima, who has not shied away from promoting his ties with the central government. Sakima has refused to align with Governor Onaga in opposition to the Henoko facility, and has received incentives from Tokyo in the form of backing for a Disney resort and additional economic aid. Sakima is a talented speaker.
By contrast, challenger Keiichiro Shimura is a low-key former official of the prefectural government, and lacks Sakima’s charisma. But his father was once chairman of the LDP’s Okinawa chapter, and he has made opposition to the Henoko plan the center of his campaign.
At election time, there were roughly 73,600 registered voters in Ginowan. Mayoralty races in the city are usually decided by 2,000 votes or less, and the outcome was too close to call when balloting began.
A win by Shimura would be a huge setback for Abe, and greatly disappoint the US, as Washington and Tokyo would have a harder time arguing that coordinated closure of the Futenma facility and construction of the Henoko facility would reduce the burden on Okinawa.
Onaga would gain political momentum by being able to work with Shimura for four years. The mayor of Nago, Susumu Inamine, was elected in 2014 on a platform of opposition to the Henoko plan. Henoko falls under Nago’s municipal jurisdiction. In the last two years, every major election in Okinawa has been won by opponents of the Henoko project.
Abe hopes a Sakima reelection will knock the wind out of the opposition’s political sails. The prime minister’s office has been careful to not dispatch to Okinawa high-profile Cabinet ministers, such as Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani, or Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, out of concern that their support for Sakima would not be well-received. A few well-known LDP Diet members, such as Toshihiro Nikai (chairman of the LDP’s General Council) and Toshimitsu Motegi (who ran the LDP’s election campaign in late 2014) have visited, but dared not campaign in public for Sakima. They opted instead for small private meetings with business leaders, whom they hope will influence their employees to vote for Sakima.
The election result should be available later this evening.