Okinawa gubernatorial election could set back U.S.-Japan relations
CAMP FOSTER — The U.S.-Japan alliance is likely to take a hit Sunday when Okinawa elects its next governor, no matter which candidate comes out on top.
Incumbent Hirokazu Nakaima, 71, and his major challenger, Yoichi Iha, 58, both oppose a plan to replace Marine Corps Air Station Futenma — currently located in the heavily populated Ginowan City — with a new base and runway on Camp Schwab and a landfill in Oura Bay near Henoko.
The election is significant because the Okinawa governor has the power to block construction of the 1.1-mile runway planned for reclaimed land in Oura Bay, under Japan’s Public Water Body Reclamation Law.
Both candidates have pledged to stand in the way of the plan, which would undermine a 4-year-old agreement between the U.S. and Japan concerning the relocation of 8,600 U.S. Marines to Guam. The plan, which would lead to the decrease of nearly one-third of the U.S. troops currently on Okinawa, hinges on construction of the new base and runway.
There is little public support on Okinawa for the plan.
According to a poll conducted by Kyodo News Service earlier this week, 62.1 percent of the 1,008 respondents said they opposed the building of a new military base at Henoko, while just 24.3 percent said they would accept the plan.
But Washington and Tokyo have called the relocation of Futenma essential to security in the region, especially with a rising Chinese presence and an increasingly unstable North Korea.
“The recent incidents, such as North Korea’s firing on a South Korean island and its nuclear development, as well as the Senkaku Island’s incident, have certainly shown the importance of the U.S. military presence,” said Masaaki Gabe, professor of international relations and director of the International Okinawa Studies at the University of the Ryukyus.
The U.S. and Japan will not let “the outcome of the election undermine the alliance,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, senior fellow of a Tokyo-based think tank Tokyo Foundation. “Now is the time to have the U.S.-Japan alliance fully functional.”
While current law would allow the new Okinawa governor to nix the runway project, the central government in Tokyo is not without options.
The Japanese Diet could amend the reclamation law if it wants to pursue the plan, according to Tetsumi Takara, professor of constitutional law at the University of the Ryukyus Law School.
“The government can submit a bill to the Diet to amend the law,” Takara said. “Under the current diplomatic and security circumstances surrounding Japan, it is highly likely that such a bill would pass the Diet.”
But passage of such a bill would not guarantee execution of the plan, because such a forcible approach might only ignite more protests, according to Watanabe.
Calls for moving the Futenma air operations out of Okinawa have increased since the summer of 2009.
Yukio Hatoyama of the Democratic Party of Japan became prime minister after promising such a move. But Hatoyama stepped down in May of this year after yielding to pressure from the United States to keep the operations on the island.
Even Nakaima, who had initially supported the relocation plan, has changed his stance, citing the ever growing concerns of his fellow Okinawans.
“Moving the operations out of Okinawa is now the strong consensus of the Okinawan people,” said Masatoshi Onaga, Nakaima’s campaign chief. “We question why it is always Okinawans who shoulder the burden of the U.S.-Japan security alliance, while the fruit has been enjoyed by the entire nation,” he said.
“We support the security arrangement because we believe it is indispensable for Japan’s security,” he said. “That’s why we want the operations to be moved to the mainland Japan.”
His opponent, Iha, meanwhile, is calling for Marine air operations to be moved out of Japan completely, saying Guam would be a better solution.
“We will put an end to the Futenma relocation issue with Mr. Iha assuming office,” said Iha’s campaign chief, Kazuma Oshiro. “Having Mr. Iha as governor of Okinawa will force both U.S. and Japanese governments to give up on the Henoko plan.”
There is a third candidate, Tatsuro Kinjo, who supports the relocation plan, but he is far behind in the polls.
While support of local community is important, recent security-related incidents serve as a wake-up call, Watanabe stressed. The Senkaku incident threatened the safety of local fishermen, he said.
“What people of Okinawa need to understand is that the alliance is a serious subject that directly affects them,” he said.
Gabe said that the most effective way for Tokyo to gain the support of Okinawa is to keep pouring money into the prefecture. The government has given 3.56 billion yen (about $44.5 million) to Okinawa under the Realignment Contribution Subsidy since Camp Schwab and its adjacent community of Henoko were chosen as the relocation site, according to the Ministry of Defense.
“After all, money talks,” Gabe said.
“But the bad news is that money is like a drug,” he said. “The more you use, the more you need.”