Okinawa gubernatorial election to impact key issues

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, right, and Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki pour awamori liquor into an earthenware pot at a reception party held following the 50th-anniversary ceremony of Okinawa’s reversion to Japanese sovereignty, in this photo taken in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, on May 15.

NAHA — A gubernatorial election will be held in Okinawa Prefecture in September, following the House of Councillors election in the summer. The outcome of the governorship contest, which is expected to gather pace in the coming days, will have a strong impact on such issues as the planned relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in Ginowan to the Henoko district in Nago.

Awamori liquor ritual

“So, I pour [the liquor] into this [earthenware pot]?” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida asked Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki, at a reception party in Ginowan on May 15 following a 50th-anniversary ceremony marking Okinawa’s reversion to Japan. “Yes,” replied Tamaki.” That’s the custom here in Okinawa.”

Kishida and Tamaki were taking part in the “kusu aged-liquor ritual” in which newer liquor is used to top up older alcohol called kusu in a maturation process unique to awamori, Okinawa’s rice-based distilled liquor. The ritual is grounded in hopes that Okinawa’s history and culture will be handed over to the next generation.

Though Tamaki is at odds with Kishida over the air base relocation, he refrained from mentioning the issue during his ceremony address and was in conciliatory mood on the day.

Sept. 11 vote

Both men have an eye on the gubernatorial election, which is slated to be held on Sept. 11.

Kishida flew into Okinawa on May 14 and attended an evening meeting of the Federation of the Liberal Democratic Party branches at a hotel in Naha. “I’m counting on you to triumph in the upper house election and the gubernatorial race,” he told his listeners.

Speaking with reporters on May 15, Kishida said, “We may clash [with the governor’s side] on many points [in the gubernatorial election], but we’re keen to thoroughly present the government’s thinking.”

In one-on-one mayoral elections — held in Nago, Nanjyo, Ishigaki, and Okinawa in the prefecture from January to April — LDP-endorsed candidates bested candidates backed by the Tamaki side in all four contests. But remarking on the mood spreading within the LDP, a senior party official said: “The gubernatorial race is different [from mayoral elections]. Tamaki is popular among Okinawans and is strong.”

The federation has found it difficult to pick a suitable candidate. At a meeting of its selection committee on May 14, 11 possible candidates were posited, including Atsushi Sakima, the former mayor of Ginowan who was defeated by Tamaki in the previous gubernatorial election. The federation is reportedly keen to expedite the selection process and settle on a candidate within the month.

Tamaki’s support base is grounded in the “All-Okinawa” forces created by former Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who persuaded reformists and some conservatives to present a united front in opposing the relocation of the U.S. air station to the Henoko district.

Tamaki has delayed declaring his candidacy for a second term in office due to ongoing fallout from an incident last year, when a local business leader averse to conflict with the government withdrew his support for the governor.

However, moves continue behind the scenes and Tamaki is expected to throw his hat into the ring as soon as early June.

All-out resistance

The U.S. bases and measures to promote the local economies are likely to dominate the gubernatorial battle. On the issue of relocating the Futenma air station, Tamaki has stuck firmly to his stance of all-out resistance, refusing to approve improvement work, including the upgrading of soft ground in the landfill area in Henoko.

Following the ceremony on May 15, reporters quizzed Tamaki as to why he had avoided the relocation issue in his address. “I’ve got strong feelings on the matter, but it doesn’t matter whether I voice them on this occasion,” he retorted. “As long as I’m in office, I’ll continue to oppose the Henoko relocation. I won’t budge.”

The government aims to quickly start soft-ground improvement work on the north side of the landfill area, after reclaiming the south side, which accounts for nearly 30% of the whole area.

The government and the LDP believe a win in the governorship race would allow work to move forward more smoothly, and are thus directing all their energies into recapturing the prefectural reins.

During his ceremony speech, Kishida advocated “a strong Okinawan economy,” and outlined a plan to quickly draw up concrete measures to upgrade local industries and imbue them with added value. He also emphasized his desire to further reduce Okinawa’s burden of hosting U.S. bases, and asserted his stance to promote advancement of Okinawa’s local economies.

Both sides hope to win the Okinawa constituency seat in the upper house election — seen as a prelude to the gubernatorial race — and gain momentum going into September’s crucial battle.