Anti-US military base candidate wins Okinawa governor race

Anti-US military base candidate wins Okinawa governor race
The fate of a contentious US military base, slated to be relocated on the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa, is now in doubt after exit polls showed a gubernatorial candidate deeply opposed to the plan emerged victorious in the election.

The national broadcaster NHK, news agency Kyodo, Jiji Press and private broadcaster Nippon Television all projected victory for Takeshi Onaga after polls closed on Sunday night. Going into the election, opinion polls put Onaga, the former mayor of Naha, Okinawa’s capital city, firmly ahead of incumbent Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima.

Nakaima had supported the relocation of US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Ginowan, a densely populated town in the island’s south. US military bases of various stripes currently occupy 38 percent of the town.

Onaga, who said his position was not anti-American, but rather about the people’s will, put the base’s future at the center of his political platform.

“We must not allow the construction (of the new base). Let’s show that the people of Okinawa Prefecture will not waver even if the governor and some other politicians are wavering,” Japan’s Asahi Shimbun daily cites projected victor Takeshi Onaga as saying on Saturday, during a last minute campaign speech.

This photo taken on November 14, 2014 shows multi-mission tiltrotor Osprey aircraft at the US Marine's Camp Futenma in a crowded urban area of Ginowan, Okinawa prefecture, ahead of Okinawa's gubernatorial election. (AFP Photo/Toru Yamanaka)

Why should the burden fall on our shoulders?

The fifth gubernatorial held since the Japanese and US governments decided to relocate the base in December 1996, the Futenma relocation plan clearly dominated the election this time around.

Onaga had campaigned on moving the base outside Okinawa, forcing other parts of Japan to pull their weight in maintaining the security alliance between Japan and the US.

He further demanded the island house no new MV-22 Ospreys, a loud tilt-rotor aircraft that locals view as dangerous.

“Okinawa has suffered a lot. Why do we have to suffer more,” Onaga told The Washington Post before the election.

Last December, Nakaima green-lighted the transfer of the base to the city of Noga, in the island’s north. As part of the transfer, he approved the central government’s late-2013 application to reclaim the sea area off Nago’s Henoko Bay, sparking protests from those opposed to the relocation.

The move followed reports Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had pledged 348 billion yen (roughly 3 billion US) in financial assistance to Okinawa, which has Japan’s highest poverty rate.

"I'd like to convey the message to the governments of Japan and the United States... that the wishes of the people here are different from the administrative action in December last year," AFP cites Onaga as telling reporters.

According to Jiji Press, Onaga said he would "act with determination" to rescind approval for the plan and preparatory work was already underway.

Will the election change anything?

In August, Japan’s Ministry of Defense started a drilling survey in the area to prepare for the building of the base. The following month, 70 percent of Nago’s residents turned out to vote in a new municipal assembly, whose majority is opposed to the base relocation plan. Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine is strongly opposed to the construction of the new military complex in Nago’s Henoko Bay.

“Why should only Okinawa hold the burden for security of all of Japan, when the presence of US Marines doesn’t play a big role in deterring China?”Inamine said in May, echoing Onaga’s sentiments during a visit to Washington, DC. “I, as mayor, have operational control over two ports that are needed for use as construction landfill and I will exercise all powers in the municipality to block access.”

Currently, Okinawa houses 74 percent of all US bases in Japan, despite the fact the prefecture constitutes less than one percent of Japan’s total landmass. US military bases cover roughly one fifth of the island.

Their presence has served as a constant source of tension with locals due to crimes committed by servicemen, disruptions caused by military flights, noise, air pollution and massive land use by the US military.

While Onaga’s victory does not guarantee he will be able to hold up the $8.6 billion dollar relocation ($3.1 bill of which will be covered by Japan), it will likely string up Washington and Tokyo’s efforts to end years of deadlock over the issue.

If Abe attempts to veto local officials, his democratic credentials could be tarnished just days before he is expected to announce a snap general election.