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Okinawan Politics Back in International Spotlight

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Tokyo Report

Okinawan Politics Back in International Spotlight

Local politicians are again drawing attention to a key U.S. foothold in East Asia.

As the long toil of U.S. mid-term elections came to an end on Tuesday, campaigning just began last Thursday (October 30) for Okinawa’s gubernatorial elections. Unlike America’s months-long ordeal, campaigning only lasts a couple of weeks in Japan – the election will be held on November 16. Okinawa has always been a key component of U.S. grand strategy in East Asia, and local-level elections are once again drawing international attention as the voters’ choice could have implications for the U.S.-Japan alliance. Due to its proximity to the Taiwan Strait, mainland China and the Korean peninsula, the US military has dubbed it, “The Keystone of the Pacific.” While strategic considerations dictate the permanence of a U.S. presence, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has signaled its intent to go ahead with the plan to relocate a U.S. Marines installation, the electoral outcome could significantly complicate bilateral planning. For the first time, the conservative forces in Okinawa are split – primarily over the issue of U.S. bases.

Incumbent Okinawan Governor Hirokazu Nakaima supports the planned relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the city of Ginowan to the Henoko district in the city of Nago, and approved the beginning of a landfill project necessary for the relocation last December. Nakaima has the official endorsement of the conservative ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and is pushing for relocation as a realistic option that increases safety for the 100,000 Ginowan residents. Though Nakaima previously ran on a platform to push for relocation outside Okinawa, he has since changed his position, determining that going against the central government will have no benefits.

Running against Nakaima is former Naha Mayor Takeshi Onaga. In the last gubernatorial campaign Onaga led Nakaima’s election efforts. However, the two political allies are now starkly opposed on how Japan should proceed with the base relocation plans. Formerly the secretary-general of Okinawa’s branch of the LDP, Onaga is now leading a coalition of politicians expelled from the LDP and reformists from the Japan Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party. Onaga wants the base to be moved out of Okinawa altogether. The coalition is rather fragile however, as some reformists oppose aligning with a former LDP member.

Complicating the picture further is Komeito’s decision to not take a stance but to let individual party members vote as they see fit. Though Komeito is the LDP’s junior coalition partner at the national level, the party opposes the relocation. Interestingly, Japan’s biggest opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), is not fielding a candidate in this election. Shokichi Kina, a former upper house member also running, was a DPJ member until he was excluded from the party because of his anti-relocation stance. Mikio Shimoji, who oversaw the privatization of the country’s postal system, is the fourth contender, running on the platform that the future of the base should be put to a prefectural referendum.

The issue has become intensely emotional, and spiced with a dose of Japan versus Okinawa identity politics. In a campaign speech, Onaga lambasted: “Seventy-four percent of US military facilities are placed in a small area [Okinawa only accounts for 0.6 percent of Japan’s land area]. I can never allow that as an Okinawan. That just shows the lack of character on the part of the central government.” The assumption that the relocation must remain within Okinawa also reinforces the “structural discrimination against Okinawa” through the concentration of U.S. bases.

Even more fundamental than the tension between Okinawa and Japan is the tension between Japan and the U.S. Though the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1952 restored Japan’s independence, Okinawa was not reverted to Japan until 1972. In the decades following controversies would occasionally flare – especially when Japanese citizens became victims of crimes by U.S. servicemen. In 1995, a 12-year-old Okinawan girl was gang raped by two Marines and a Navy corpsman; in 2008 a marine was accused of rape, but the 14-year-old girl later dropped the charge. Accidents are also a source of contention: U.S. aircraft have been involved in 44 crashes on Okinawa since 1972, leaving 84 people dead, injured or missing. A 2004 crash in which a helicopter clipped an administrative building as it crashed into Okinawa International University’s campus was highly publicized. The most recent accident a U.S. military helicopter’s crash on August 5, 2013.

The central government is trying to help Nakaima’s reelection bid, with Cabinet ministers visiting the prefecture during the campaign period and promises to “reduce Okinawa’s burdens.” The Japanese government hopes to end operations at the Futenma base by February 2019, however, because the U.S. refuses to cooperate, observers deride it as a “hollow promise.” Though the central government pledges to move ahead with the relocation regardless of the election outcome, a win is essential for Abe following a string of high-profile corruption scandals involving his Cabinet.

Mina Pollmann studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service majoring in International Politics/Foreign Policy.