Okinawa’s busy political year set to have major impact on national security

In the first of several elections in Okinawa this year with national political and defense implications, voters in Nago will head to the polls on Jan. 23 to choose a mayor.

Their choice boils down to a candidate who is broadly in favor of the project to relocate US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from a congested area of ​​Ginowan to the coastal district of Henoko in Nago, or categorically against it.

Depending on the winner, the long-running controversial project – already years behind schedule – could either continue to move forward as currently planned or face further delays. The latter possibility would create political complications for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and affect US-Japan defense relations.

The election pits incumbent mayor Taketoyo Toguchi, backed by the Liberal Democratic Party and pro-relocation plan Komeito, against Yohei Kishimoto, a former Nago city councilor backed by the Constitutional Democratic Party, the Japanese Communist Party and other opposition parties.

Toguchi, who has not spoken publicly against the relocation plan, is seeking a second term and says only that he will carefully monitor the ongoing construction of the replacement Futenma facility. Kishimoto opposes the project and wants it stopped.

Toguchi won his first term in February 2018, and in December of that year the Japanese government began landfill work for the Henoko airstrip in the waters off Camp Schwab. The United States and Japan formally agreed to build the Henoko facility in 2005, but strong local opposition thwarted the project and the estimated completion date kept getting pushed back.

Progress remains slow, although now due to engineering difficulties rather than local political opposition. At the end of November, only 8.6% of the landfill work had been completed. In November 2020, a report by the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said that while the completion date was supposed to be 2030, costs were skyrocketing due to all the delays and it seemed unlikely that the project is ever completed.

Nago Mayor Taketoyo Toguchi (R) meets with former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in Okinawa Prefecture on December 5. | KYODO

A victory for Toguchi would likely mean faster approval by the mayor of any future permits the construction project may need, and no legal challenges by the city to the project. It would also cause problems for Kishimoto’s supporters, namely Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki and his coalition of “all Okinawa” supporters. They range from traditional left-wing parties opposed to the U.S.-Japan alliance as a whole, to those who, like Tamaki, say they support or recognize the need for the U.S.-Japan alliance in general but oppose the proposed relocation of Henoko.

Tamaki faces his own re-election challenge, as a gubernatorial election is due to take place by the end of September. He is expected to face an opponent who will at least have the backing of the central government, if not a formal affiliation with the ruling parties.

A victory for Kishimoto could mean Nago’s refusal to grant permission to amend building permits and could result in legal action. That, in turn, would mean more delays and diplomatic headaches for Kishida’s administration at a time of rising regional tension with China. Criticism is also mounting within opposition parties, and even among rivals within the LDP, over Kishida’s management of Okinawa. A victory for Kishimoto would give a boost to Tamaki’s coalition for the local and prefectural elections that would follow.

Other key votes this year include the Nago Municipal Assembly elections, which are due to be held at the end of September. There, a vote resulting in a majority opposing the Henoko plan could also affect the construction schedule.

Mayoral and assembly elections in Ginowan, where the Futenma base is currently located, are also scheduled to be held in late September. Political pressure on the central government to shut down Futenma as soon as possible could intensify and create friction with the central government over who wins the mayor’s chair and the majority of seats in the assembly. For example, a mayor of Ginowan against the Henoko plan and US bases might be more vocal in demanding not only that Futenma be closed, but also that all US Marines leave Okinawa.

Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki (right) speaks in support of Nago mayoral candidate Yohei Kishimoto in Naha on December 16.  |  KYODO
Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki (right) speaks in support of Nago mayoral candidate Yohei Kishimoto in Naha on December 16. | KYODO

On the other hand, a mayor favorable or neutral towards the Henoko plan could only call on Tokyo to shut down Futenma as soon as possible and say nothing else.

The February 27 election for mayor of Ishigaki may also have an impact on Japan in the field of national defense, as the controversy over a proposed Ground Self-Defense Force missile base is the key issue in this election, with a grassroots mayor seeking re-election.

The results of these elections will serve as indicators of whether Tamaki’s coalition – formed four years ago to bring him into office, after the death of the previous governor – is still strong enough to win him a second term when the gubernatorial election will take place at the end of September. If re-elected, Tamaki would likely continue to challenge the Prime Minister over the Henoko Plan. However, a candidate supported by the PLD would probably like to see the project completed quickly.

Indeed, the Nago mayoral poll is just the start of a busy year for Okinawa politics that will be closely watched across the country given its potential impact on national security and prefectural relations. with Tokyo.

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