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Sunday’s election a turning point for Okinawa?

Date Posted: 2010-11-26

Sunday’s gubernatorial election in Okinawa is being forecast to be many things to many people, but more than anything, it’s promising to be an election whose outcome is not going to make the southerrmost Japanese prefecture’s future any brighter.

The two men who seek to be Okinawa’s governor in the new year both have firm positions against the relocation of Futenma Marine Corps Air Station from densely populated Ginowan City to a sparsely inhabited area of northern Okinawa. The present governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, is on the campaign trail calling for Futenma to be removed from Okinawa. His challenger, 57-year-old Yoichi Iha, the former mayor of Ginowan City that hosts Futenma now, wants the airbase moved completely out of Japan.

The central Japanese government, however has an agreement with the United States that calls for the airbase to be moved to the northern reaches of Okinawa, in the Henoko district of Nago City, and virtually every action involving U.S. forces on Okinawa hinges on that relocation. An American official involved with the Japan – U.S. alliance calls the election “a critical juncture” for the country, but insists the current plan remains viable, and is the only logical option for both Washington and Tokyo.

Futenma must move to northern Okinawa before any of the 8,000 U.S. Marines and 9,000 dependents begin moving to a new home in Guam, now programmed for 2014. Likewise, the Futenma move and Marines relocation must be accomplished before bases such as Camp Kinser in Urasoe City are handed back to Japanese control.

The Democratic Party of Japan swept to power more than a year ago promising to review the alliance and the Futenma agreement; it failed to the point it forced the Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, to resign because he couldn’t find any solutions. Nothing’s changed, really, under the regime of Prime Minister Naoto Kan. If Okinawa’s going to get relief from the burden of hosting the bulk of U.S. forces in Japan, the Marines must move, and to do that, the airbase must move first.

“There’s a harsh wind blowing against us,” says Shokichi Kina, an Okinawa entertainer-turned-politician who’s the leader of the local DPJ chapter. The central government does have the power to change the laws that currently grant governors the right to approve all land reclamation projects, which in Okinawa’s case is necessary to build the two V-shape runways in Oura Bay on reclaimed land. Kan can order it, but that could trigger another massive anti-Tokyo wave of sentiment.

The 71-year-old Nakaima is viewed as both the very slight favorite in Sunday’s election, and the one who’s best hope for any deals being made with Tokyo and the U.S. He’s supported the Futenma relocation before, and the economic stimulus to Okinawa could sway him once more. He’s being backed by the Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeito Party. Business leaders are being circumspect, but admit they think the prefecture’s business climate would be better under Nakaima, who’s seeking his second term. Tokyo is sure to use subsidies as the leverage to boost the economy in return for his support of the Futenma relocation. Nakaima’s supporters, as well as a top aide, say ‘not so fast’. “The DPJ thinks we might be able to deal,” says aide Masatoshi Onaga, “but we absolutely don’t think that way.”

Iha, the former mayor of Ginowan City, is the favorite of the unions. Virtually all of his campaigning is based upon ridding Ginowan City and Okinawa of the airbase that’s been a thorn in his side while mayor. “”It’s time to reset the alliance,” Iha maintains, saying “the Japan-U.S. relationship was put together as a product of the cold war, and the cold war is over.” A former Okinawa governor, Masahide Ota, is siding more with Iha’s point of view, that “If the Japanese government insists on building, something awful could happen to the local people because they won’t allow it.” Ota says Okinawans are now “determined not to have bases.”

Last minute campaigning for Nakaima has included a visit to the Makishi Public Market. “I have things left to do,” he says, asking for “one more period of four years to let me work.” The governor is promising “to make Okinawa rich, not feeling uneasy to live, and opening the prefecture to the world for children and grandchildren.” He says he “takes pride in Shimanchu, the motive of Okinawa, the pride of Okinawa, and my desire to work hard.”

Iha, for his part, has stomped the streets of his hometown after launching a campaign in the capital city of Naha. “If the Futenma base was returned,” he’s lobbying all who will listen, “we can develop the site and create 32,000 new jobs, so let’s make a new Okinawa.” He’s taken as his motto: Peaceful Okinawa Without Bases. The risks of a base relocation are not good for Okinawa, “such as burying the beautiful sea at Henoko to make a new base,” he says. Iha’s campaign, while predominantly anti-bases, also talks about welfare and education change, promoting his policy “The Okinawa New Idealism” that boosts employment to prop up the environment, welfare and public works.”

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