Tokyo Notes

What the Okinawa Poll Means

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Tokyo Notes

What the Okinawa Poll Means

Did economics trump the Futenma base relocation issue in Sunday’s gubernatorial election?

While much of the media’s focus for Sunday's Okinawa gubernatorial election was on the two main candidates' opposition to the relocation of a US airbase within the prefecture, voters appear to have re-elected Hirokazu Nakaima based mainly on his pragmatic fiscal approach to the finances of the impoverished (by Japanese standards) prefecture.

In doing so, they may also may have ended up voting to keep the base in Okinawa.

Nakaima (who had the backing of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party's Okinawa chapter) narrowly defeated Yoichi Iha (a leftist with ties to the Japanese Communist Party who quit as a mayor of Ginowan, host city to the Futenma Air Station, to run in the prefectural poll) by 335,708 votes to 297,082. A third candidate, Tatsuro Kinjo of the laughable Happiness Realization Party, picked up 13,116 votes.

Nakaima and Iha both take a dim view of a bilateral agreement reached by the government of former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama with the United States to transfer the Futenma base functions to a site in the city of Nago in the prefecture. Both men stood on a platform of kengai, or relocation of the base outside of the prefecture (or outside of Japan to Guam or another territory willing to accept the presence of US troops).

But a crucial difference between the two candidates was that in the final stages of campaigning, Nakaima honed his message around the economy and social issues. Iha's stump speeches, however, stayed on a kengai message, or preferably in his view—kokugai (out of the country).

While the ruling Democratic Party of Japan didn’t formally back a candidate due to splits within the party on the relocation issue, Prime Minister Naoto Kan appeared to gingerly welcome Nakaima's re-election on the grounds that he might be more willing to compromise on the issue than the hard-line Iha.

But, as governor, Nakaima has the final say on whether the new base can be constructed. And although he’s seen as more pliable on the issue, any deal with Tokyo will inevitably involve the governor wringing every possible yen out of the central government for the development of the prefecture. Indeed, this seems to be a major factor in Okinawans plumping for the business-minded incumbent ahead of a review of a 10-year prefectural economic promotion plan that will expire in 2012.

Speaking on NHK's flagship Close Up Gendai current affairs show Tuesday evening, Nakaima again dodged a simple yes-no question of whether he would approve relocation inside the prefecture. Yet he also made his feelings toward the government clear.

‘Hatoyama promised in his manifesto for last year's lower house election to move the base out of the prefecture, but he reneged on that and the people of Okinawa are extremely angry with the government. The burden of hosting the US forces in Japan must be shared across the entire country, not just Okinawa,’ Nakaima said. ‘Okinawans deserve an explanation for the government's 180-degree turn on policy.’

If the government is going to stick to its guns on the base relocation, it’s going to face a fierce opponent in Nakaima and the people of Okinawa. In a Yomiuri survey taken outside polling booths Sunday, 37 percent of voters said the base should be moved outside Japan, while 34 percent responded it should be relocated outside of Okinawa. Less than a quarter would accept keeping the base in the prefecture.

Even if the government does persuade Nakaima to accept relocation in the prefecture, negotiations over costs and compensation are likely to drag on, drawing yet more jeers from an LDP that’s scenting blood.

In fact, it’s likely that the only place muted cheers will be heard is in the corridors of the US State Department. With a cocksure China weighing up its neighbours with foreign policy jabs and the current precarious situation on the Korean Peninsula, the United States is looking to maintain its sphere of influence in North-east Asia and would pounce on any move by Japan to go back on the agreement to relocate the Futenma base.

But given China's increasing dominance in the region, Washington seems to need Japan more than ever as a counterbalance to Beijing. The Kan government could use this to its advantage.

Should Tokyo once again state that, given the depth of anti-US feeling in Okinawa, it would like to renegotiate the agreement with Washington, it would come under fire from the opposition (for flip-flopping on an issue it has already flip-flopped on). A reversal would also rub Washington up the wrong way. But by now, the government should have steeled up to the constant attacks from the LDP and its allies and be strong enough to brush them aside. As for the United States, many previous Japanese governments have failed to stand up to Washington—kowtowing that has made Tokyo very much a junior partner in the alliance.

Kan, in contrast, could dispel the notion he’s weak in a single stroke by clearly telling Washington that the people of Okinawa can no longer accept the presence of US bases and an alternative arrangement has to be negotiated.

While this would likely generate friction with Washington, it would probably be short-lived, eventually allowing the two allies to create an alliance on a more equal footing. Voters would also see this as the strong leadership they gripe has been lacking in recent years, therefore giving the stumbling government a major boost.

Alas, the situation will more likely stay in limbo for several more years, leaving Kan (if he is still around) sitting on a fence that will be feeling more like barbed wire than wood and trying to perform a balancing act between the people of Okinawa and US policymakers.

Ironically, an Iha victory could have been a silver lining in an Okinawan typhoon, as it would have tied Kan to finding an alternative site for the US base outside of the prefecture.