Reelected Okinawa governor faces difficulties in pushing U.S. base issue

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Reclamation work is seen underway on Sept. 7 in the coastal area of the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, in preparation for the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station.

The relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station within Okinawa Prefecture is continuing despite the reelection of Gov. Denny Tamaki.

The Okinawa governor, who opposes the base’s relocation to the Henoko coastal district of Nago from Ginowan, won a second term Sunday by defeating two challengers, including Atsushi Sakima in a rematch of the 2018 election.

The pro-relocation Sakima was backed by the national ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito. The former Ginowan mayor tellingly won more votes than Tamaki in that city and in Nago.

For Tamaki, the road ahead may prove to be difficult.

Ongoing court battle

“We’ve been proceeding with the understanding of the people of Okinawa,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Monday at the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo, referring to the work to relocate the base. “We must continue to make the effort.”

With the prefecture’s approval at the end of 2013 under a conservative governor supported by the national ruling coalition, the central government began reclamation work in Henoko in the southern part of the coastal area. That sea area has now been reclaimed, accounting for just under 30% of the total reclamation area.

In the northern part, however, reclamation work has not proceeded in areas of weak seabed that need reinforcement. Tamaki had become the governor and did not approve the central government’s request for design changes to the plan that included the reinforcement work.

Tamaki has been engaged in a legal battle with the central government over his decision. His reelection is expected to prolong the confrontation.

Some within the central government take the election result as saying that “how people voted is important, but not all voters are against the relocation.”

Voters in Ginowan and Nago, the cities directly affected by the relocation, gave more votes to Sakima than to Tamaki. Sakima had 26,221 votes from Ginowan voters to Tamaki’s 20,722, while he was just ahead of the incumbent in Nago with 15,717 votes to 15,407.

In the Ginowan mayoral election also on Sunday, the incumbent pro-relocation mayor endorsed by the national ruling coalition defeated a candidate seeking to be elected mayor for the first time. Even in the Nago city assembly election, a majority was won by candidates siding with the incumbent mayor, who is supported by the national ruling coalition.

“With the relocation progressing as a fait accompli, emphasizing only the base issue is a fading argument,” a senior LDP official said. “The economic stimulus plan Sakima presented during the campaign drew voters’ interest, too.”

LDP making gains

In this year of elections, the LDP has won all four Okinawa mayoral elections scheduled including in Nago. In July for the House of Councillors election to fill one seat in the Okinawa Constituency, an LDP candidate was only 2,888 votes behind the winning candidate backed by national opposition parties.

Even so, the decisive battle of the gubernatorial election ended in defeat for the national ruling coalition. The LDP said that votes from the conservative camp failed to all go to Sakima.

“There is no doubt that some people in the prefecture were concerned” about the LDP’s connections with the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, widely known as the Unification Church, said LDP Election Strategy Committee Chairperson Hiroshi Moriyama on Monday.

With unified local elections coming next spring, the LDP is likely to have an urgent need to revise its readiness for these polls.