The victory on Sunday of Takeshi Onaga in the race for governor of Okinawa came as no surprise, as opinion polls leading up to election day tagged him as the clear favorite in a field of four that included the unpopular incumbent, Hirokazu Nakaima.
But the size of Onaga’s victory – roughly 100,000 votes ahead of Nakaima, with two-thirds of voters joining Onaga in opposition to construction of a new US Marine base in the prefecture – was stunning, putting both Tokyo and Washington in a serious bind.
For the US-Japan security alliance, Onaga’s win is almost sure to mean protracted delays in construction of the planned US Marine facility in the Henoko section of the prefecture, which is designed to replace the dangerously-situated Marine Air Station Futenma. Washington and Tokyo have been wrangling over terms for the promised closure of Futenma, located in the city-center of Ginowan, for close to 20 years. At a time when the US and Japan are deepening defense ties in part to counter the rise of China’s air and naval capabilities, the alliance once again faces the prospect of getting misguidedly sidetracked by haggling over construction of a base of arguably marginal strategic significance.
Meanwhile, Onaga’s victory is a bitter blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose government has often taken pride in claims its firm leadership had finally resolved the Futenma-Henoko issue. Late last year, Abe managed to pressure Governor Nakaima to sign the landfill papers required for construction of the Henoko base to proceed. The backlash against Nakaima, who had implied to voters he would stand firm against the Henoko project, was immediate, culminating in Sunday’s sound rejection of the incumbent governor by Okinawa’s voters.
Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party is keeping a stiff upper lip. Toshimitsu Motegi, chief of the party’s election strategy committee, told reporters after the Okinawa vote came in that the government and the LDP would not alter plans to steadily implement construction of the Henoko base.
But it won’t be easy for Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga to maintain his stance that the Futenma-Henoko controversy “is a thing of the past.”
Okinawa conservatives split
Onaga’s political profile contrasts with the long-standing narrative that unease about the heavy presence of US military bases in Okinawa, particularly plans to build a new facility to replace Futenma, comes from a small but noisy minority of the population. (Okinawa is Japan’s southern-most and poorest prefecture, and makes up only 0.6 percent of Japan’s landmass. But 75 percent of the land in Japan utilized by US military facilities is concentrated in Okinawa.)
Onaga, far from an anti-American activist opposed to all US bases in Okinawa, was for many years a stalwart of the LDP, having run the party’s Okinawa chapter for several years. He first won a seat to the Naha (capital city) assembly in 1985, and then moved on to the prefectural assembly, and then to Naha city hall as mayor from 2000 until now. He won all of his races on the LDP ticket.
Onaga was even campaign manager for Governor Nakaima’s reelection campaign in 2010.
But in recent years Onaga steadily began to voice opposition to the plan to replace the Marine Air Station Futenma with a new facility at Henoko, and was furious when Nakaima somewhat flippantly reversed his campaign pledge and gave the go-ahead to the Henoko project.
Despite his reserved and moderate demeanor, Onaga has even headed up demonstrations in Tokyo against the Henoko base plans.
Onaga is the leader of an increasingly vocal stream of conservatives in Okinawa who feel considerable emotional distance from the Tokyo headquarters of the LDP. Though Japan regained sovereignty in 1952 when the US Occupation ended, Okinawa was not included in the reversion. The US maintained control for an additional 20 years, which intensified feelings among many Okinawans of discrimination by “mainland” Japanese. Onaga regularly speaks of the unfair burden borne by Okinawans in support of the US-Japan alliance. He is sensitive to a distinct cultural identity native to Okinawa, to which Tokyo sometimes appears oblivious, if not dismissive.
The LDP headquarters in Tokyo, including Abe and Suga themselves, was initially reluctant to back Nakaima in the gubernatorial race, recognizing he would likely lose. But they finally got behind him upon realizing there was little choice; abandoning him would have been even more embarrassing. So the LDP headquarters pressured the local Okinawa chapter to get on board. Nonetheless, roughly 27% of LDP voters backed Onaga. And Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner that backs the LDP, did not pressure its supporters to vote for Nakaima, and many exercised that freedom.
LDP election dilemma
Onaga’s electoral success poses a big dilemma for the LDP, heading into Lower House elections that Prime Minister Abe is expected to call for December 14. Sentiment against the ruling party’s stance on the Futenma Replacement Facility controversy has already affected other elections. Henoko is a district of Nago City, whose mayor, Susumu Inamine, is a fierce opponent of the new Marine facility. He is backed by a majority of the city assembly. Meanwhile, also on Sunday, the city of Naha voted for a new mayor to replace Onaga, and elected an opponent of the new base.
The political winds blowing against the LDP could spell trouble in the upcoming elections for the four incumbent Lower House members from Okinawa elected on the LDP ticket.
One year ago, prior to Nakaima’s decision to approve construction of the new base, the then-secretary general of the LDP, Shigeru Ishiba, embarrassed the five LDP Diet members from Okinawa (one is from the Upper House) by forcing them to publicly declare their unequivocal support for the Henoko project. Up to then, they all in varying degrees had tried to finesse the issue, and left voters with the impression that they would fight to move the functions of the Futenma base outside of Okinawa. All were severely criticized for succumbing to Ishiba’s pressure.
In the gubernatorial election, two of the four were particularly supportive of Nakaima, and critical of Onaga, and now may be forced to defend those stances in front of a motivated electorate with a decidedly different perspective.
The four Lower House members are Kosaburo Nishime, who is also chief of the LDP’s Okinawa chapter; Masahisa Miyazaki; Natsumi Higa; and, Konosuke Kokuba.
There are rumors in Okinawa that a prominent businessman may challenge Nishime in the upcoming election.
Miyazaki, who was the most critical of Onaga during the gubernatorial race, is susceptible to pressure from the LDP Tokyo headquarters because he owes his Lower House Diet seat to having been put on the party’s proportional vote list. He actually lost his Lower House race in 2012, but was rescued by the LDP.
Higa, a dentist by profession, is known to want to return to private life, having little enthusiasm for the rough-and-tumble world of politics. It is not clear what stance she will take on the Henoko base issue should she indeed run for reelection.
Kokuba is the most intriguing of the LDP Diet members from Okinawa. Kokubo is very close to Governor-elect Onaga. Indeed, after Ishiba applied intense pressure on the five LDP Diet members from Okinawa, Kokuba held out the longest, and actually conferred with Onaga about the best way to proceed. Onaga served as Kokuba’s campaign manager in 2012. Kokuba is also close to current foreign minister Fumio Kishida, who is from the dovish wing of the LDP.
Left to his own devices, Kokuba would likely fully back Onaga’s opposition to the Henoko project.
But Kokuba is also a member of the family that owns Kokuba Gumi, the giant construction company based in Okinawa that is slated to play a major role in the construction of the new base at Henoko. The company, now run by Konosuke Kokuba’s uncle, managed to steer a lot of money and votes to Konusuke, which puts him between a proverbial rock and hard place. Support for the Henoko project would be a betrayal of his mentor, Onaga. But opposition to the project would risk a rupture with one of his prominent backers.
Onaga’s next move
Governor-elect Onaga, who will take office in early December, is slated to meet on Tuesday with Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga.
Onaga has already announced he will establish a special commission to investigate the process that led to Nakaima’s approval of the landfill work required before actual construction of the Henoko base can proceed.
Onaga has pledged to explore all legal remedies to reverse Nakaima’s decision. As governor, he would also have the power to deny necessary permits for construction to proceed, likely forcing the issue into the court system.
Moreover, Onaga has pledged to ensure that the Futenma Marine Air Station close. US officials privately have repeatedly said that Futenma will not close unless and until a replacement facility at Henoko is operational.
In another unusual move, Onaga has said he will open a special Okinawa Prefecture office in Washington to facilitate dialogue with US authorities about alternatives to the Henoko project.