Tokyo Report

Abe’s Okinawa Setback

Local elections in Okinawa deal another blow to the prime minister’s agenda.

Abe’s Okinawa Setback
Credit: newsonline via

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears set to dissolve the Lower House and call for a snap-election. Abe’s government has instituted a number of unpopular measures including the State’s Secret Law, a cabinet decision to reinterpret Article 9 to allow for collective self-defense, and an April 2014 increase in the consumption tax from 5 to 8 percent. Additionally, the Abe cabinet has been mired in pubic scandal since his recent cabinet reshuffle in early September. To top things off, Abe’s three-pronged approach to tackling deflation and kick-starting Japan’s stagnate economy have proved less than adequate. The yen is deprecating rapidly but the economy remains sluggish, in large part because of the impact of the 3 percent increase in the consumption tax on consumer spending.

Not surprisingly, with these ill effects, combined with the talk of a snap-election, Abe’s poll numbers have plummeted. Of course, the election – most likely to be held on December 14, according to local press reports – is intended to gauge the public’s opinion of the government’s track record and provide Abe with a new mandate for implementing the second phase of the consumption tax increase from 8 to 10 percent in October 2015. Certainly, Abe is taking a huge political gamble and the risks are high.

Those crucial factors aside, there is another salient issue that looks set to deliver a costly blow to Abe and his political agenda. Today’s Okinawa gubernatorial election outcome is likely to prove to be a distracting and painful thorn in Abe’s side. Local media were projecting that anti-base candidate Takeshi Onaga, who had maintained a narrow margin in the polls over the incumbent governor (and Abe’s preferred man), Hirokazu Nakaima, had emerged victorious. The large U.S. presence in Okinawa and new runway construction at Camp Schwab were the focal points of the election. As the voice of the staunch anti-base movement in Okinawa, an Onaga victory is a severe blow to the Abe and the LDP-led central government that has hedged its bets by promising Washington that Futenma relocation would go ahead as planned.

Nakaima had previously promised the Okinawan people that he would close Futenma and ensure it would be located outside Okinawa prefecture. However, in December 2013, Nakaima reneged and accepted $2.6 billion (300 million yen) in subsidies from the central government, a move that was more than welcomed in Washington. Many Okinawans were enraged at Nakaima for caving to the demands of Tokyo and Washington and Onaga was quick to capitalize on the political backlash. Onaga appealed to voters by playing on their unique culture and identity as Ryukyu islanders instead of Japanese. He has also been vocal about Okinawa’s need to stop relying on monetary support from the central government and the economic subsistence provided by the bases. Instead, he argues that the bases are the biggest hindrance to economic development. In short, Onaga is playing on the emotions of the Okinawans who have long felt victimized and oppressed by policies from the central government. Today’s election was the ultimate litmus test, and Onaga’s strategy seems to have been successful.

Ricky Hough is a freelance writer and consultant in Tokyo.