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Nago's future may hinge on mayoral election results

Date Posted: 2010-01-21

Sunday’s mayoral election in Nago City is attracting international attention, as incumbent Yoshikazu Shimabukuro faces a challenger in a contest that could well change the entire future of the northern Okinawa city.

Shimabukuro views the city’s economic future as hinging to a large degree on the financial largess that comes with the new U.S. military airfield in his city’s Henoko district. His challenger, Susumu Inamine, is dead set against having the Marine airfield relocated from Ginowan City. His pledge to potential voters is exactly the opposite, telling them “I promise not to allow them to build a base in the sea of Henoko”. He wants to have Futenma Marine Corps Air Station moved out of Okinawa, and preferably, out of Japan.

The agreement between Japan and the United States in May 2006 called for relocating Futenma to Camp Schwab in the Henoko district of Nago City, with a pair of V-shape runways to be built in reclaimed land in nearby Oura Bay. Shimabukuro has basically supported the plan, backing Governor Hirokazu Nakaima’s call for the runways to be moved a bit further into the bay in the interest of nearby residents’ safety. Doing that, though, has riled environmentalists concerned the runways would endanger coral and dugongs in the bay.

Nago City has been struggling in recent years, and Inamine is charging “Under Shimabukuro, bankruptcies have risen and 23% of stores in downtown Nago are now vacant, while unemployment stands at 12.5%.” While that may be true, many residents are fearful Nago City could collapse economically without the money the new military base would bring to the community.

Inamine and Shimabukuro are in a virtual dead heat in polls ahead of Sunday’s election. Inamine, who’s backed by the Democratic Party of Japan, the Japanese Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party, the People’s New Party Kokumin Shinto, and a small local party, contends he can get economic development funds not connected to any military activities from the Tokyo government headed by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. He’s also promising to reduce city government by eliminating one of the two vice mayors.

Shimabukuro’s the one who hired the second vice mayor, contending the extra leadership was needed to coordinate the base relocation activities between the city and the prefectural and national governments. He’s still lobbying to voters that the Futenma move would be good for Okinawa and Nago City and provide financial stability. He’s also blasted Inamine, calling him a hypocrite for switching his position on the base issue now that the DPJ has taken control of the central government. “When Inamine was working for the city,” Shimabukuro points out, “he did not voice opposition to the Nago plan. Now, when he’s running for mayor, he suddenly announces he’s opposed.”

The 63-year-old mayor is the fourth mayor to seek reelection with Futenma being a major issue. In each of the previous elections, the relocation supporters won the mayoral races, and Shimabukuro wants the same to happen this time. He’s supported by New Komeito, and is promising to work closely on relocation “in consultation with Governor Hirokazu Nakaima and local people. He has the endorsement of Nakaima and the Liberal Democratic Party, as well as most construction companies and allied businesses that hope to rebuild the city’s economy with building the new base and the adjacent civil works projects needed to support it. Shimabukuro is also promoting his work in creating new jobs for Nago City, and is promising to do even more in the next term.

Inamine, on the other hand, thinks he can turn Nago City and northern Okinawa into and agriculture and environmental tourism center, while attracting light industry. The 64-year-old Inamine is campaigning hard this week, fully aware that in 2006, Shimabukuro won the election with 16,764 votes, more than the two opposition candidates together mustered. Voter turnout then was 74% and predictions are that Sunday’s race will bring out an even larger number of voters who want to cast ballots on the future of the city.

Nago City first came into the spotlight a decade ago when the government awarded the city the hosting rights for the G8 Summit. The central government essentially promised a rosy future for Nago in exchange for its support for Henoko being the site for a new airfield to replace Futenma, which sits in densely populated Ginowan City. The summit passed, and plans for building the new airfield began, but local opposition continued. Voters cast ballots sending mixed signals; they were opposed to the new base, but they kept electing local leadership that fully supported the new airbase.

The first referendum by Nago residents in 1997 supported the airfield move. The prefecture gubernatorial election in 1998 was all about the Futenma move, and Keiichi Inamine won the election on promises he supported moving Futenma to Henoko. Takeo Kishimoto won election as Nago City’s mayor at the same time, also promising to support the new airfield in his district. Inamine, who won reelection in 2002, did so with continued promises of support for the Futenma move.

Hirokazu Nakaima won election as Okinawa’s governor in 2006, and Shimabukuro won election as Nago’s mayor. Both did so on campaign pledges to build the new airfield at Futenma.

Sunday’s election is being watched closely by the United States and the central government in Tokyo, where Prime Minister Hatoyama has promised to make a decision on honoring the previous administration’s commitment to build the new airfield at Henoko by May.

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