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Futenma transforms Nago election

Date Posted: 2010-01-28

The radically anti-base candidate won the Nago City mayoral election Sunday, sending first ripples, then a tidal wave of conflicting emotions across Okinawa, then Japan, then around the world.

Virtually everyone had been predicting a squeaky tight election, but the victory by Susumu Inamine, a staunch advocate of American troops and bases being kicked out of Okinawa, over moderate Yoshikazu Shimabukuro, who long had supported moving Futenma Marine Corps Air Station from central Okinawa to his community, has dominated talk not only in Okinawa and mainland Japan, but all the way to Washington D.C. Inamine, former chairman of Nago City’s Board of Education, captured 17,950 votes to Shimabukuro’s 16,362.

“I campaigned by promising everyone that a base wouldn’t be built near Henoko’s shore, and I want to keep that promise,” the 64-year-old Inamine said after the results were posted. He’d run for the mayor’s office as an independent, but with the support of the Democratic Party of Japan, the Social Democratic Party, the Japanese Communist Party and the People’s New Party. He also garnered support from civic and environmental groups opposed to having a new military base constructed on reclaimed land in Oura Bay.

Shimabukuro, who had argued that the Futenma issue was an issue neither the mayor nor the local Nago City citizens should decide on, chose to focus his campaign on achievements during his four-year term. He rarely even mentioned the base relocation issue, and had spurned campaign speech offerings from LDP Diet members. Also an independent, the 63-year-old Shimabukuro had supported the 2006 Japan ~U.S. bilateral accord that linked relocating Futenma from its location in densely populated Ginowan City to Camp Schwab in Nago City’s Henoko District. The most controversial element of the relocation was the plan to build a pair of V-shape runways on reclaimed land in Oura Bay.

The win by a foe of Futenma relocation brought cheers from many who quickly declared the agreement to relocate the controversial Marine Corps Air Station ‘dead’, but the reality is that the plan could still be very much alive. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama had campaigned against the Futenma relocation, but since being elected last Fall has stalled, saying he’d make a decision by May. In the wake of Sunday’s election, Hatoyama is saying he could dump the deal made with Washington by the former government, indicating he’ll start “from scratch” to determine where to move Futenma. He’s called the Inamine win in Nago City a “manifestation of the popular will” of the voters, noting “we have said the state will responsibly reach a conclusion on this issue by the end of May. We will implement it without fail.”

Still, others are recalling his comments less than a month ago that his views had changed, saying “there is an argument about whether it is appropriate to have foreign troops stationed in Japan if you think about the future, 50 or 100 years from now.” Futenma alone has 2,000 troops stationed there, one of the Marine Corps’ largest bases in the Pacific. A 1960 agreement between the U.S. and Japan stipulated that U.S. military forces are allowed widespread use of Japanese land and facilities in exchange for agreeing to protect Japan under its nuclear umbrella and to come to Japan’s aid in the event of an attack on the island nation.

Political and military observers say Hatoyama may have painted himself into a no-win corner now, with upper house elections only months away. Jeff Kingston, a Temple University Director of Asian Studies in Tokyo says “Hatoyama can’t make a decision now that’s going to make Americans and Japanese happy.” The Yomiuri newspaper in Tokyo declared in an editorial “Prime Minister Hatoyama is responsible for a delayed decision due to his wishy-washiness and lack of determination. Without a relocation site, Japanese-U.S. relations would worsen and fall into a critical situation.”

Some analysts are already suggesting the Nago City election may have no impact, and that Hatoyama will in-the-end go accept the current agreement, since there’s not any other realistic relocation option in Japan as other cities and prefectures don’t want the base moved into their backyards. U.S. Marine Corps commanders point out that Futenma and the Third Marine Expeditionary Force, both on Okinawa, are essential to protecting Japan and maintaining its forces. “The commander of all Marine forces in the Pacific, Lt. Gen. Keith J. Stalder, said last week “National security policy cannot be made in towns and villages.”

There’s a lot at stake with moving Futenma to northern Okinawa by 2014. Some 8,000 Marines are to move to Guam as part of that 2006 agreement, while other elements of the deal include U.S. forces giving up most land south of Kadena Air Base, with property at Camps Foster, Butler and Kinser being turned back to Japanese control. None of that is likely to happen if Futenma doesn’t move as scheduled.

The Japan Chief Cabinet Secretary has been quoted by the national television network NHK stating there’s “no reason why the result of the Nago mayoral election should be taken into account.” Hirofumi Hirano adds “I said that statements made by the new mayor are merely a single expression of the peoples’ will, but I don’t think we must take those statements completely into account when it comes to Japan’s security.” He also told NHK he questioned the need to reach agreement with local authorities in order to make a decision.

Okinawa’s governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, is sitting in a strong position to influence the decision on the Futenma relocation. He’s on record as willing to accept the Henoko agreement and relocation, but has refused to jump into the fray since Sunday’s election. Nakaima, who faces his own tough re-election bid in November, says “the problem of the bases is 200% an issue for the central government and they should judge. Ask them.” He says “we must respect the judgment of local residents, but I can’t say much until I see how the central government’s relocation plan goes.”

The State Minister in Charge of Okinawa says “the mayoral election is not a referendum focusing only on the relocation issue. We need to seek the relocation site from every possible option.” Seiji Maehara indicated the current agreement should not be ruled out. Shigeru Ishiba, whose Liberal Democratic Party was in office when the 2006 deal was made, is calling on Prime Minister Hatoyama’s government to keep Henoko in the planning, even though he concedes things are more difficult now. He says the central government “needs to immediately present a feasible plan and to seek support from Okinawa and the United States” so Japan can keep deterrent power of U.S. forces in Japan, while still helping Okinawa.

U.S. government officials are walking a careful line, with both Defense and State Department leaders cautious about what they say. Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage says he is “pessimistic there will be a positive decision on moving to Henoko, and my advice to everybody who deals with Japan is that we have a Plan B.” Pentagon officials are telling reporters “the issue deals with national security and is something only Japan’s central government can make decisions on.” No U.S. officials are criticizing Tokyo or Prime Minister Hatoyama, but U.S. officials including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates maintain the Henoko plan is still the best plan.

Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley has suggested the Obama administration could give up the Futenma relocation plan and simply continue using the Futenma base. Assistant Secretary of Defense Wallace Gregson, a retired Marine Corps three-star general who commanded the forces on Okinawa, is expected to visit Japan next month to press the central government for a decision by May.

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