CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Okinawa’s gubernatorial election on Sunday is widely seen as a referendum on a new U.S. military runway and Tokyo’s policies about the U.S. military presence on the tiny island prefecture.
Incumbent Hirokazu Nakaima faces stiff opposition from former Naha mayor Takeshi Onaga, as well as former state minister Mikio Shimoji and musician-turned-representative Shokichi Kina.
To separate themselves from the policies of the 75-year-old Nakaima, Onaga and Kina have taken anti-runway stances while Shimoji wants a referendum to let voters decide.
Japan’s leading newspapers say Onaga is in the lead with Nakaima trailing. Shimoji and Kina are seen as dark-horse candidates with little chance of winning.
U.S. Embassy officials in Tokyo declined to comment on what the vote could mean for U.S. forces in the region, and it’s unclear what, if any, effect the vote will have on Japanese posture and policies regarding the U.S. military, but it could fuel a small but vocal protest movement or throw cold water on it.
“The election will serve as a prefectural referendum,” said Shinichi Nishikawa, a professor of political science at Meiji University in Tokyo and an expert on Japanese voting behavior. “Beyond the military issue, the election will be a vote of confidence on mainland Japan.”
Nishikawa said the military issue has become voters’ top concern.
The divisions in Okinawa began to jell in the late 1990s when some residents began to urge relocating Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the island’s densely populated center. A CH-53D Sea Stallion crashed into nearby Okinawa International University in 2004, adding a sense of urgency to the issue.
A plan to move the operations to a more remote locale at Camp Schwab did not satisfy protesters who want a smaller U.S. military footprint on the island, which is home to more than half of the 50,000 American troops in Japan.
Further complicating matters were several sexual assaults by American servicemembers, as well as environmental concerns.
Many in Okinawa also harbor resentment toward the central government for treatment and policies going back centuries.
The protest movement largely blames Nakaima for bowing to Tokyo and approving the Futenma relocation to Henoko in late 2013. Though he was originally against the project, Nakaima was able to secure subsidies for the prefecture in the process.
Onaga has tried to unite Okinawans through their Ryukyuan identity, as opposed to Japanese, to block the relocation within the prefecture and the runway construction. He claims the military bases are the biggest obstacles to the island’s economic development.
“Moving the Marine Corps operations at Futenma to Henoko is certainly a big focal issue of this election,” said Nakaima’s senior campaign executive, Mitsuhiro Chinen. “However, the biggest point at issue is how to remove the danger currently posed to local communities surrounding the Futenma air station.”
Chinen said Nakaima has been successful in lobbying for the relocation of some flight operations to mainland bases. He also said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has assured the governor that efforts are under way to relocate half of the 24 Futenma-based MV-22 Ospreys off island. The protest movement has focused on safety concerns for the plane-chopper hybrids.
The “U.S. military presence on Okinawa is crucial for the security of Okinawa and Japan,” Chinen said, citing disputes over the southern island chain. “Meanwhile, a disproportionate concentration of military facilities and installations on Okinawa is certainly something that we need to address and resolve.”
Onaga’s camp accused Nakaima of turning his back on the people and said that if the former mayor wins, the protest movement will not only grow, but he will do everything possible to disrupt and stop the relocation.
“Can the governments of the Unites States and Japan ignore the will of local people?” Onaga campaign chairman Yonekichi Shinzato said. “The outcome of this election will be the answer to [Nakaima].”