Okinawa governor’s race heading for Tamaki-Sakima rematch

Yomiuri Shimbun photos
Atsushi Sakima, left, and Denny Tamaki

The Okinawa gubernatorial election on Sept. 11 will likely come down to a rematch between incumbent Denny Tamaki and former Ginowan Mayor Atsushi Sakima.

The election will determine who will take the helm of a new promotion plan for the prefecture and deal with issues on U.S. bases in Okinawa, which on May 15 celebrated the 50th anniversary of its return to Japan.

Tamaki, 62, is expected to announce he is running for reelection as early as June 11. On Saturday, the Liberal Democratic Party’s Okinawa prefectural chapter decided to once again field Sakima, 57.

In the 2018 election following the death of then Gov. Takeshi Onaga, Tamaki received 396,632 votes while Sakima was the runner-up with 316,458 votes.

One of the major points of contention during elections has been the issue over the relocation of the U.S. Futenma Air Station in Ginowan to the Henoko district of Nago. Onaga and Tamaki, candidates backed by the All Okinawa group opposed to the relocation, won the past two gubernatorial elections.

The LDP, the national ruling party pushing for the relocation, is seeking to regain control of the governorship of Okinawa Prefecture for the first time in eight years. A mail-in survey conducted by The Yomiuri Shimbun in March and April, however, showed that 61% of Okinawans were opposed to the relocation. Bringing up the Henoko issue as a point of contention could work against the LDP candidate.

Cautious moods

Sakima announced his determination to run for governor again on Saturday at a hotel in Naha.

“While base issues are a major challenge, I promise to do my best to shine a light on the Okinawa economy and the livelihoods of our residents,” he said.

The LDP’s Okinawa chapter had originally planned to select its candidate by March, believing that it could aim for a synergistic effect if the candidate worked together with its candidate for July’s House of Councillors election from the early stages of the campaign.

Although there was strong support for Sakima within the prefectural chapter, the candidate selection process was delayed for two months due to cautious moods within LDP headquarters in Tokyo and business circles in Okinawa.

LDP-backed candidates have won four consecutive mayoral elections in Okinawa Prefecture this year, including in Nago. However, the prefectural chapter views the gubernatorial election as different from these elections as it is prefecture-wide. There is the need to try to get through to independents, seen as the key to victory, especially those in the capital and most populous city in the prefecture Naha.

Sakima has not clearly stated his position on the relocation issue. When asked by reporters about it, he only said, “I place emphasis on the earliest possible return of the land occupied by the Futenma Air Station.”

Incumbent’s resolve

The same day the LDP decided on Sakima, Tamaki was receiving calls to run for reelection from supporters opposed to the relocation of the Futenma Air Station.

“Receiving such calls, I can stand firm in my resolve,” Tamaki told reporters.

While it is true that Tamaki enjoys a high approval rating, there are some concerns.

The All Okinawa group, Tamaki’s support base that brings together conservative and progressive voters, has weakened, according to some observers. They say that the group’s adamant opposition to the relocation has resulted in some members of conservative factions and business circles leaving.

Tamaki has been increasingly discussing issues other than base issues, including child-rearing, and expressed confidence in gaining support from independents.