TOKYO – Mayors committed to U.S. military base realignment plans in Okinawa and Iwakuni each won re-election this past weekend, giving the Japanese government a political boost against those opposed to the moves.
Atsushi Sakima defeated Keiichiro Shimura on Sunday to remain mayor of Ginowan City, home of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa.
The U.S. and Japan have agreed to close Futenma, which is in a densely populated part of the island and garnered protest after a helicopter crashed into a nearby college building in 2004. However, the plan to move Futenma’s functions to Camp Schwab, in the island’s rural east, galvanized opposition that resulted in Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga’s landslide victory in 2014.
Shimura had been supported by Onaga, who favors moving base functions off-island and has attempted to thwart the bilateral realignment plan through permit revocations and other moves.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Shimura’s loss showed that opposition to the U.S.-Japan realignment plan isn’t as strong as reported by some polls, during a press conference Monday in Tokyo.
“The reality is that the candidate, who ran [against the relocation], was defeated,” said Suga, who later added that the economy and other factors also factored into the vote.
Sakima hasn't voiced support for the Camp Schwab move but hasn't opposed it either, according to Japanese media reports.
Okinawa, with a population of approximately 1.4 million, is home to about half of U.S. forces in Japan. The island is prized for its strategic proximity to several hotspots in the region, but the U.S. military footprint has also garnered significant opposition since the island reverted to Japan from the U.S. in 1972.
The U.S.-Japan realignment plan calls for thousands of Marines to transfer from Okinawa to Guam sometime in the next decade.
The plan also includes the Futenma relocation and the transfer of the Navy’s Carrier Air Wing 5 from Naval Air Facility Atsugi, west of Tokyo in Kanagawa Prefecture, to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni.
Opposition in Iwakuni to the transfer and expansion of the base there has been more muted than the protest movement in Okinawa.
On Sunday, Iwakuni Mayor Yoshihiko Fukuda easily gained re-election with 72 percent of the vote against Atsuko Himeno, who opposes the air wing transfer.
Stars and Stripes staffer Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.