Okinawa Heads to the Polls for Crucial Gubernatorial Race
A typhoon is predicted to approach the main island of the Okinawa island chain on Sunday when residents are slated to head to the polls to elect the next governor of Okinawa Prefecture. A key issue is the possible relocation of United States Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Henoko, a hotly debated subject related to continued US military presence in Japan under the longstanding Japan-US Security Treaty. Two candidates, Denny Tamaki, and Atsushi Sakima are the major candidates for Okinawa governor.
The governorship was vacated due to the death of Takeshi Onaga, a passionate opponent to the American military presence in Okinawa. Onaga, who died on Aug. 8 from pancreatic cancer, successfully campaigned for Okinawa governor in 2014 on the platform to scrap any relocation of Futenma base and instead close it down entirely. His political position was strengthened by a victory in the prefectural legislature that granted anti-US base politicians a majority in 2016.
Onaga’s tenure as governor — a few months shy of the full four-year term — often put him at odds with the central government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo over the issue of US bases in the prefecture. The most recent confrontation over the bases began shortly before Onaga’s death when he announced on July 27 that the Okinawan prefectural government would start the process of withdrawing approval for land reclamation work in Henoko. Deputy Governor Moritake Tomikawa, currently heading the prefectural government pending the election, has stayed the course set by Onaga.
Okinawa hosts the largest number of US military bases and personnel than in any other region of Japan. Over half of the 54,000 US troops are stationed in bases scattered around Okinawa Prefecture. Since the signing of the Japan-US Security Treaty in 1951 and its revision in 1960, many Okinawans have raised complaints about issues related to American bases, including crimes, accidents, and noises. In 2016, a military contractor and US Marine veteran had raped and murdered an Okinawa resident. Although he was eventually convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to life in prison by a court in Okinawa, the event sparked a high level of tension between Tokyo and Washington.
Anecdotally, then-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reportedly declared Futenma “the most dangerous base in the world” after seeing the base from the air in 2003 and noting the high density of buildings clustered around the airbase — a violation of safety standards set by the US Department of the Navy and the US Federal Aviation Administration that would otherwise not have been tolerated on US soil.
Prior legal challenges by the Okinawan government against Tokyo’s plans to relocate the bases have floundered in Japanese courts, most notably in 2016, when the Supreme Court of Japan ruled against Okinawan efforts to shutter Futenma and move US forces off the islands. The most recent legal challenge in Japan was in March, when the Naha District Court ruled against the prefectural government; a separate suit in the United States brought by environmental activists seeking to protect endangered dugong in the Henoko area was dismissed by a US district court in August.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, along with national coalition partner Komeito announced it would back Sakima, a former mayor of Ginowan City, for governor. On Sept. 23, Shinjiro Koizumi, chief deputy secretary-general of the LDP, came to Naha, capital of Okinawa prefecture, to stump for Sakima. The ex-mayor has directed attention to issues other than the relocation, such as vowing to decrease school lunch fees — which most public schools require families to pay — and raising incomes of the residents.
In contrast, his main opponent Tamaki — a member of the opposition Liberal Party and the first mixed-race Amerasian member of Japan’s House of Representatives — has publicly opposed the relocation of Futenma in favor of moving US forces off Okinawa island entirely. Tamaki has stressed his background on having an Okinawan mother and a US Marine father (who left Japan before his birth), saying he is fit to negotiate with the US over the planned relocation. At a campaign rally on Monday, he told supporters that “it’s not possible that the democracy of the country of my father will reject me.”
The Futenma base and its relocation plan are part of a larger debate over continued US troop presence in Okinawa (and Japan at large). Economics continues to play a role in influencing decisions regarding the bases, with about five percent of Okinawa Prefecture’s revenue generated by commercial activity related to the bases.
The fading memory of the Second World War is also widening a generational gap among Okinawans over the issue. While older voters that were exposed to the bloody fighting in the island chain firsthand or socialized by parents about the battles associate the bases with the horrors of war, the political calculus for younger voters is markedly different. Many were born after the Second World War and the reversion of sovereignty over Okinawa from the US back to Japan, with the troops and their families part of their daily lives.
For the LDP-dominated national government under Prime Minister Abe, the election cannot be ignored. The issue of relocating Futenma most certainly influences relations between Washington and Tokyo. Given the increasingly tense situation with regards to overlapping territorial claims in the East China Sea and a recalcitrant US administration, future difficulties in Okinawa may reverberate beyond the issue of bases and further complicate US-Japan relations.
The latest poll conducted by Asahi Shimbun on Sept. 24 finds the gubernatorial race to be practically neck-and-neck. Out of voters who have already decided on their choice for governor, Tamaki — backed by the “All Okinawa” coalition that propelled the late governor Onaga to electoral victory in 2014 — garnered the vast majority of voters affiliated with national opposition parties (Constitutional Democratic Party, Communist Party of Japan, Social Democratic Party of Japan). Conversely, Sakima is overwhelmingly backed by voters affiliated with the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition. With regards to the issue of base relocation, about half of those surveyed oppose Futenma’s relocation to Henoko while a quarter supports the relocation plan. Most voters that oppose the central government’s relocation plan backed Tamaki in the survey.