Okinawa gears up for upper house elections Sunday

Everyone’s on the campaign stump in anticipation of Sunday’s Upper House elections, and that includes Japan’s Prime Minister.

Shinzo Abe has been in Okinawa campaigning since Tuesday morning, trying to stem the tide of public antipathy toward his government’s plans for relocating Futenma Marine Corps Air Station in Henoko, not to mention Okinawa’s displeasure with having the Marines’ MV-22 Osprey around.  Abe Tuesday gave speeches and attended candidate meetings in Ginowan City, home of Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, and a constituency where his Liberal Democratic Party candidates are thought to be facing the toughest challenges in Sunday’s House of Councilors election.

Not everyone’s being outspoken in this election campaign though.  The LDP’s Masaaki Asato says his approach is not to talk about the Futenma base, but rather, “First of all, I will work to get the economy firmly back on the road to recovery.”  The 45-year-old Asato’s stressing the importance of strengthening measures to stimulate the local economy. During campaign speeches at several locations in the prefecture, he did not touch on his policy of seeking the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma air station outside Okinawa.

The LDP is sticking with its support for the Japan-U.S. agreement to move Futenma from Ginowan to a more sparsely populated area of Nago City, the Henoko district.
In its local campaign pledges, however, the party’s prefectural chapter is seeking the base’s relocation outside Okinawa. The base issue is listed fourth in the prefectural chapter’s booklet of policies, after local development, welfare and social capital.

The LDP’s Okinawa Prefectural Chapter is trying to keep the focus on potential benefits to the prefecture to be gained by Prime Minister Abe’s economic policies, called ‘Abenomics’ by some.  The Abenomics focus is shifting attention from the military aspects of the election.  Says a senior chapter official, “We know the reality that there are no options for the Futenma solution other than relocating to Henoko, but people here want relocation outside Okinawa and we can’t ignore that.”

The LDP’s Secretary-General, Shigeru Ishiba, also avoided making any comments about Futenma’s planned relocation to Henoko during his visit to Okinawa. Ishiba said his party is committed to “work on eliminating the danger posed by the Futenma base as soon as possible.”

Keiko Itokazu, Asato’s main rival running for a third term under the ticket of the Okinawa Socialist Mass Party, kicked off her campaign with a speech criticizing the Abe administration. Itokazu has won overwhelming victories in her last two elections, and now she’s been focusing her efforts on stopping a constitutional amendment, and also to try and block Japan’s entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks. Prime Minister Abe and the LDP are endorsing both.  She’s kept her mouth closed on the Futenma issue as well, briefly mentioning only that she doesn’t want it moved to Henoko, and that she’s opposed to building any new base..

Asato challenged the LDP administration when he stood outside the party’s headquarters to declare the controversial Futenma Marine Corps Air Station should be relocated outside Okinawa.  That’s pretty well dimmed the relocation plan as a significant election issue, although Itokazu is claiming Asato is trying to gloss over controversy, and also accuses him of betraying voters by switching his support to the Henoko relocation if he wins.

The Futenma relocation plan has not been a key election issue, despite the concerns of voters, after Asato chose to stand against LDP headquarters and seek relocation outside Okinawa.

The coalition of opposition parties that supported Itokazu in past elections is not rock-solid this time, with the Democratic Party of Japan deciding not to back her. Itokazu admits, “The situation is different this time.” A senior official of the Itokazu camp said, “Although we don’t depend on any organizations or groups, it looks like we will be unable to avoid a basic loss of votes.”