GINOWAN, Okinawa — Opposition to a plan to relocate military air operations to Camp Schwab from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is growing stronger and becoming more polarized, according to results of Nago city assembly elections Sunday.
U.S. base opponents in the northern Okinawa city that hosts Camp Schwab won a 60 percent majority in the elections. Of 27 seats, anti-base candidates won 16 seats and 11 went to pro-base candidates. Before the election, the city assembly consisted of 12 anti-base members and 12 who were considered pro-base, with three members neutral on the issue.
The Nago vote boosts the power of Mayor Susumu Inamine, who was elected on an anti-base platform last January.
In May, the U.S. and Japan reaffirmed a 2006 agreement to close Futenma, in urban Ginowan, move the air units to Camp Schwab and build runways stretching onto landfill in pristine Oura Bay.
Although the mayor and city assembly have no powers to block the move, Sunday’s election shows it will be difficult for the national government to win local understanding, let alone acceptance, for the Futenma relocation project.
“It’s like scoring an insurance run [in a baseball game],” Masaaki Gabe, professor of International Relations and director of the International Okinawa Studies at the University of the Ryukyus, said Monday. “Securing the majority in the council makes it easier for Inamine to pursue his agenda.”
The election could also affect the Okinawa governor’s race, where Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, who reluctantly supported the relocation plan in 2006 but now says he’s opposed to it, faces Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha, a fervent opponent of the project. That election is scheduled for Nov. 28.
Okinawa’s governor can hinder the progress of the relocation plan by refusing to allow dumping tons of landfill into Oura Bay, known as the northernmost feeding ground of the endangered dugong, a saltwater manatee. If the governor refuses to approve the landfill project, the national government would have to pass special legislation to bypass his veto.
Sunday’s election comes two days ahead of the national election for presidency of the Democratic Party of Japan, which could also affect the Futenma relocation plan. The DPJ is Japan’s ruling party and the race is seen as a toss-up between Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who supports the base project, and Ichiro Ozawa, who says the U.S., Japan and Okinawa need to have new discussions before proceeding with any construction.
If Kan wins, he remains prime minister and his focus will be on finding ways to have Okinawa officials accept the plan.
In that vein, a panel of local and national officials met in Tokyo on Friday to discuss measures to improve the prefecture’s economy and reduce the noise, crime and other problems associated with the military bases, which cover about one-fifth of the main island of Okinawa.
Since the initial 1996 bilateral agreement to close MCAS Futenma and move the air operations elsewhere on Okinawa, Tokyo has allocated about $117.6 million in economic stimulus for northern Okinawa, including Nago.
In addition, $32.66 million was earmarked from the Ministry of Defense for economic projects for the communities affected by the base project.
The current stimulus allocations for the northern area expires in March. The stimulus package for the Camp Schwab area communities was suspended by the Ministry of Defense in January when Inamine was elected.