Japan’s ruling party pins hopes on political dynasty to retain LDP’s lone seat in Okinawa

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Senkaku Islands are seen in September 2013.

This is the fourth installment in a series that looks into constituencies where candidates are facing close battles.

Kosaburo Nishime’s portfolio as a member of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Cabinet means traveling from one end of the nation to the next is par for the course. Not only is he the reconstruction minister, who has to visit Tohoku, but he is also state minister for Okinawa and northern territories affairs, among other roles. This is the first time one person concurrently serves in both roles.

The 67-year-old was in Nemuro, Hokkaido, exchanging opinions with officials involved in northern territories affairs on Oct. 18. The next morning, when the House of Representatives election campaign officially kicked off, the Liberal Democratic Party member headed down to his constituency in Okinawa.

Nishime changed into a kariyushi shirt, the short-sleeve collared shirt frequently worn in Okinawa, then delivered his first stump speech at an intersection in Tomigusuku, part of Okinawa Constituency No. 4, which also includes Itoman, Miyakojima and Ishigaki.

“As a member of the Kishida Cabinet, I will visit actual places, listen to the voice of the people directly and respond to them,” Nishime said. “I became a minister thanks to all your support.”

Because of his ministerial post, however, he is able to visit Okinawa only at limited times. Since he took the Cabinet post on Oct. 4, he has visited the Tohoku region several times. So Nishime has to contest the election while often being absent from his constituency.

An LDP member of the Okinawa prefectural assembly, however, expects being a minister to have positive effects for Nishime.

“Many voters are willing to support him because he is a minister from their area,” the person said.

While the reformist camp has a certain strength in Okinawa Prefecture, the conservative camp is relatively strong in constituency No. 4. What dealt a particularly heavy blow to Nishime was a defeat of an LDP-backed candidate in the Miyakojima mayoral election in January this year. In the 2017 lower house election, Nishime earned about 8,000 more votes in the city than his nearest rival, becoming the driving force that brought him a narrow margin of victory of about 6,300 votes across the entire constituency.

Since 2018, however, other mayoral candidates backed by the LDP have failed to win in a series of elections within the constituency. At one time in the past, the mayors of all five cities in the constituency were affiliated with the LDP, but today this only applies to the mayor of Ishigaki.

Aiming to rebuild his support base, Nishime is making full use of the “Nishime family brand.” His father, Junji, served as the governor of the prefecture and a lower house member, and the Nishime family still retains name value in local politics.

On Oct. 15, Nishime’s brother Junshiro, 71, a former House of Councillors member, met a business organization in Miyakojima and made a comment that drew appreciative laughter.

“Since my father ran for the legislature [of the government of the Ryukyu Islands before the United States returned Okinawa to Japan] for the first time, the next election will be the 34th election where a member of the Nishime family is running,” he said.

While Nishime is absent from the constituency, his older brother is present at the campaign office, receiving endorsements from organizations on his behalf.

“I will defend his constituency so that Kosaburo can do his official duties with peace of mind,” the older brother said enthusiastically.

Nishime’s younger brother Keishiro, 63, is a member of the prefectural assembly and has also been busy making courtesy calls on organizations and voters for him.

Okinawa is at the front line of Japan’s national security. The city of Ishigaki includes the Senkaku Islands as an administrative area, and China Coast Guard ships have repeatedly entered Japanese territorial waters near the islands. A Ground Self-Defense Force camp is being constructed on Ishigaki Island, but reformists are rolling out a campaign against the construction.

Nishime publicly states that national security is the starting point of national politics.

On Oct. 22, he attended a ceremony in a hotel on Ishigaki Island to celebrate his appointment as minister and as a general election rally.

“The reality facing the Senkakus is extremely harsh,” he said that day. “Only the LDP-Komeito coalition government can protect the peace.”

Running against Nishime is Toru Kinjo, 68, the candidate of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. He is a joint-representative of All Okinawa, a local political force that includes conservatives and reformists.

All Okinawa was created by the late Takeshi Onaga, who served as a secretary general of the LDP Okinawa chapter, to unite seemingly opposing forces. In the 2014 Okinawa gubernatorial election, Onaga defeated the incumbent backed by the LDP with the support of All Okinawa. In the lower house election held in December that same year, candidates backed by All Okinawa won in all four constituencies in the prefecture.

After Onaga died in August 2018 while in office, All Okinawa became more reformist, leading some influential persons in the local business community to leave the movement. Even so, All Okinawa-backed Denny Tamaki, 62, became the current governor and the movement still has a presence across the prefecture.

When Onaga served as the mayor of Naha, Kinjo was his close aide and supported him as a member of the city assembly. He and Onaga left the LDP and joined All Okinawa together.

For Kinjo’s election platform presentation held in Tomigusuku on Oct. 15, core members of All Okinawa, including Tamaki, gathered and Onaga’s second son, Takeharu, 34, served as a moderator.

Asked during the presentation what issue he wanted to emphasize most, Kinjo said, “Henoko comes first.”

Opposition to the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station in Ginowan to Nago’s Henoko district is a slogan of All Okinawa. Though Nago is part of constituency No. 3, Kinjo said, “This is an issue for the entire prefecture.”

On Oct. 19, Kinjo delivered a stump speech in Tomigusuku, mentioning Onaga twice and Tamaki five times, showing his All Okinawa colors.

“The high profile of All Okinawa,” a senior official of the Kinjo’s camp said confidently, “can offset his lack of name recognition.”

Kinjo said during his speech: “I am contesting the election against an incumbent minister, which can be likened to facing a yokozuna in sumo. If I win, it is like a rank-and-filer defeating the top-ranked wrestler.”