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Futenma-Henoko hot-button in Sunday election

Date Posted: 2006-11-17

The fate of a Japan-U.S. agreement and the future of American military forces on Okinawa are in the balance Sunday as voters elect a new Prefecture Governor.

None of the three candidates vying to replace the outgoing governor Keiichi Inamine are proponents of the planned replacement airfield facility in Henoko, although the Liberal Democratic Party’s man is less critical of the idea than the others. Former Vice Governor Hirokazu Nakaima has told voters he would accept a new facility, provided certain changes are made to the present plan.

Anti-base candidate Keiko Itokazu is demanding the entire Henoko plan be dumped, and that Ginowan-based Futenma Marine Corps Air Station be moved outside Okinawa. Similarly, the third candidate is opposed to having the airfield in Okinawa. Chosuke Yara, who represents the Ryukyu Independence Party, is considered a long shot to win because of his primary platform issue calling for Okinawa to secede from Japan.

At issue is closing Futenma, located in the heart of Ginowan City, a sprawling central Okinawa community of 85,000. The agreement formalized early this year calls for the base to be relocated to Henoko, in northern Okinawa near Nago City, by 2014. The new airfield and runways would be constructed on the Marines’ Camp Schwab. Two 1,800 meters long runways are to be built on the base and straddling the island tip, extending into the ocean waters.

67-year-old Nakaima is trying to brush aside the political overtones of Henoko, focusing instead of the economy. He insists voters will make economic issues the key, well ahead of opposition to the bases. “The most important issue is how to help Okinawa industry”, he says, promising to create a prefecture with virtually no unemployment, now the highest in all Japan at 7.6%. He sees improving social welfare services as the second most important issue facing Okinawa, with the bases ranking third.

The central government in Tokyo, recognizing the challenge Nakaima is facing from Itokazu, has tossed its support to the former President of Okinawa Electric Power Company. Tokyo has linked future subsidies and other economic assistance to a governor that supports the Futenma relocation. Nakaima is supported by the LDP and New Komeito, as well as many key Okinawa businesses.

Itokazu calls this election “the perfect opportunity to tell the governments of both Japan and the United States we don’t need a new base.” She has campaigned on a theme of a bases-free Okinawa. She has narrowed the gap in the polls, strongly challenging Nakaima. Itokazu is representing both the anti-base activists and the opposition political parties.

Nakaima views fixing Okinawa’s economic plight as essential to the prefecture’s future. He says large amounts of financial support from Tokyo is essential, and has rallied support from many in the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. He contends that adding the Henoko facility will result in significant money and jobs for residents and businesses. There are 4,000 construction companies in Okinawa, many of whom stand to gain from the new base construction. Kokuba-gumi, the largest in the prefecture, is expected to gain the runway construction contract.

The Japanese Defense Agency’s head, Fumio Kyuma, worries that the Henoko plan will be problematic regardless of who wins. The government’s Minister to Okinawa, Sanae Takaichi, is hinting she could accept changes to the Henoko plan rather than “have a situation where Okinawa’s economic revitalization is stalled.”

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