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Economy trumps base issues in Nakaima win

By: Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2006-11-25

Voters turned out in record numbers Sunday to elect Hirokazu Nakaima as Okinawa’s new governor.

The gubernatorial race was close, but voters sent a clear message that Okinawa’s need for a more vibrant economy was more important than battling over U.S. military base realignment issues. Nakaima, who was backed by the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, as well as the central Tokyo government, defeated principal opponent Keiko Itokazu by a few votes over 37,000.

The 59-year-old Itokazu, backed by the Communist and Socialist parties, as well as anti-base opposition groups, found that voters are less concerned about the base issues than she had anticipated. Itokazu had waged a vigorous campaign to block the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station move to northern Okinawa from Ginowan City, demanding it be moved outside the prefecture.

A near-record voter turnout of 65.54% topped the 57.22% level of four years ago. Nakaima won with 347,303 votes to Itokazu’s 309,985 votes. A third candidate, Chosuke Yara, picked up only 6,220 votes. He also set his campaign on an anti-bases theme. A close race had been forecast throughout the campaign, with the economy and the military base issues driving the rhetoric.

Voters didn’t follow the predictions of pollsters, whose surveys showed 60% of Okinawans were opposed to military bases on the island, and who wanted the Futenma move stopped and other bases shut down and the troops moved out. Instead, they chose to heed the words of Nakaima, a former vice governor and Chairman of the Okinawa Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who called for curbing unemployment by creating thousands of new jobs in the construction and information technology industries.

While not pleased with some aspects of the planned new airfield to be built on Camp Schwab in northern Okinawa, Nakaima saw the construction as vital to the local economy, where unemployment sits at eight percent, double the national average. He wants the project moved forward quickly, with Futenma being closed within three years as the new airfield and support facilities are built at an accelerated pace. The U.S. and Japanese governments agreed in May to construct two runways in a V-shape on Camp Schwab by 2014, at which time Futenma would be closed and 8,000 Marines moved from Okinawa to Guam.

“The V-letter type runway is not good,” says Nakaima, “and I prefer (current governor) Keiichi Inamine’s opinion of making a provisional heliport at Henoko.” That puts him at odds with Nago City mayor Yoshikazu Shimabukuro, in whose district the new airfield would be. “I want the new governor to understand our opinion that we agree with the Japanese government,” Shimabukuro says, “that it is a better idea to make the V-letter type airfield”.

Okinawa City voters gave Nakaima a 5,000 vote margin, 31,492 to 26,395. Okinawa sits between the sprawling Kadena Air Base and U.S. Marine bases Camp Foster and Butler. Nago City, in the heart of what is planned to be the Marine Corps’ bases under realignment, gave Nakaima a nearly 4,000 vote plurality, 16,490 to 12,537. Even residents surrounding Camp Hansen, where troop strength will be beefed up, gave Nakaima a nearly two-to-one victory with 3,393 votes to Itokazu’s 1,822. Only in Ginowan City, where Futenma is located, was the tally close. Still, even there Itokazu went down to defeat 21,944 votes to 20,138. Kadena Town also tossed its support behind Nakaima 4,037 to 2,984 votes. Many had thought that Okinawa City, Ginowan City, Kadena Town and Hansen Town would have sent an anti-military message to the government, but that simply did not happen.

Nakaima has pledged to make economic revitalization the cornerstone to his administration. He says Okinawa has between 70,000~80,000 businesses, but must still rely on mainland Japanese companies to accomplish business here. While the current regime generated 40,000 new jobs, Nakaima promises to create more by pushing to make the prefecture a bastion for the information technology.

Strong support for Nakaima’s approach had been given by Prime Minister Shintaro Abe, who had hinted Okinawa’s continued financial support from Tokyo would be better served by Nakaima as governor. Abe, speaking in Hanoi following the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, told reporters he was “happy to see a good result” from the election.

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