Editorial: Incumbent wins Nago mayoral election

People still favor relocation of base outside prefecture

The votes have been counted in yesterday’s mayoral election in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, and the incumbent, Susumu Inamine, has been reelected in a head-to-head battle against newcomer Bunshin Suematsu. Mayor Inamine opposes the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station in Ginowan to Nago’s Henoko district, while his opponent actively supported the plan.

This outcome clearly demonstrates local residents’ opposition to the effort to simply shift the burden of the base from one area of Okinawa to another. The central government must take this result seriously.

Seventeen years have passed since the governments of Japan and the U.S. agreed on the return of the Futenma Air Station site. It is clear that the relocation plan will continue to face further uncertainty.

Last month Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima gave his approval for the reclamation project along the coast in Henoko, which is the key to the relocation project. The governor credited the central government for moving up the return of the Futenma Air Station and for declaring its intention to secure a budget of about 300 billion yen per year for the development of Okinawa.

He repeatedly offered the lame explanation that, although he had approved the reclamation work, he would continue to seek relocation of the base outside Okinawa. The feasibility of measures to reduce the burden on the area near the Futenma base is hardly assured either.

The governor’s stance drew fire from people all over Okinawa, not just the citizens of Nago, and by a majority vote the prefectural assembly passed a resolution calling for him to step down for breaking his promise to seek to relocate the air station outside the prefecture. Against this background, the mayoral election was held.

The votes in support of Mr. Inamine also represented criticism of the governor, who had gone ahead with procedures to start construction. There will inevitably be a major impact on the outcome of the gubernatorial election to be held in November of this year.

The citizens of Nago are well aware that the return of the Futenma air station is a pressing issue. But as long as the base is relocated within the prefecture, the basic problem of concentrating the U.S. military facilities in Japan in Okinawa will remain unchanged.

Mr. Suematsu stressed that regional development would be carried out with subsidies that would be received from the central government in return for cooperation with the relocation. Clearly, this position garnered a certain amount of support. But the vast majority of Nago citizens did not feel they should accept money for local development in exchange for assuming the burden of the base.

Most of all, the outcome of the election demonstrates how people felt about the methods of the Abe administration and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which offered a massive budget for regional development and the establishment of a special fund while pressuring the governor to approve the reclamation project.

During the election campaign, Shigeru Ishiba, secretary-general of the LDP, issued a warning to the incumbent, who has refused to accept relocation, saying, “The central government will decide on the location of the base.”

It is a fact that foreign relations and defense policy are, in principle, the exclusive jurisdiction of the central government, but this remark demonstrated too little regard for the wishes of the local people. It can even be regarded as heavy-handed. It’s no wonder it provoked a backlash from the people of Okinawa.

The central government has said the relocation plan remains unchanged. But, in fact, it has become extremely difficult to proceed with the plan as scheduled. The mayor’s approval and talks with the city will be necessary in order to build roads for construction vehicles and to use the harbor to stockpile materials. These are all essential in order to begin the reclamation work, but Mr. Inamine has clearly stated he will refuse approval.

The central government has argued that the U.S. military bases in Okinawa are necessary to maintain the Japan-U.S. alliance. But establishing security policy on this shaky ground with the pent-up anger of the people of Okinawa is full of risks. Even if measures are worked out to reduce the burden on Okinawa, such as by shifting training flights for U.S. military aircraft out of the prefecture, they will merely be a superficial way of handling the matter and will not provide a fundamental solution to the problem.

Yesterday’s election directly addressed the pros and cons of relocating the air station to Henoko, and the people have made their wishes clear. If the government doesn’t take them seriously, there will be serious problems.

(Originally published on January 20, 2014)