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Okinawa in turmoil 1998

Date Posted: 1999-01-01

The biggest political story of 1998 in Okinawa was the fight over proposed relocation of MCAS Futenma. The long tug-of-war over the issue pitted Okinawa’s now ex-governor Masahide Ota against the central government in Tokyo. The dispute ultimately cost Ota his job. He was defeated in November gubernatorial election by Keiichi Inamine, a business leader turned politician who defeated Ota by promising money and jobs by taking a flexible stance on the heliport issue.

The dispute started with a referendum over the government’s proposal to construct a floating heliport off Camp Schwab. In the referendum, votes opposing the heliport plan narrowly defeated pro-votes. Muddling things further were several mayoral elections in various municipalities around the island, in which several incumbents supported by Ota were voted out of office, largely on the weight of economic issues. And finally, the discovery of a colony of dugongs living in the waters around the proposed heliport construction site, added to the confusion.

With the prefecture’s unemployment rising to record high eight percent, the highest in the nation and double the national average, Inamine’s election message found a receptive ear among voters.

Inamine clearly got the favors in Tokyo, with a substantial increase for funds for projects in Okinawa in the national budget. The central government also took steps to unfreeze several projects to boost Okinawa’s economy that had been on hold since Ota’s refusal to budge on the issue.

The first half on the 1999 will be crucial for Inamine. He has to show Tokyo that there is progress in the heliport issue, and at the same time convince his local constituency that the economic benefits outweigh the burden of hosting the U.S. troops in the prefecture in the short term at the levels they are now.

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