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Okinawa local election signals fatigue toward fighting new base

Victory of 'pro-base' candidate was helped by longing for a better economic future

Construction is underway in Nago for a base to replace the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Japan's southernmost island prefecture of Okinawa bears the heavy burden of housing around half of the roughly 50,000 U.S. military personnel in the country. In the past year, the noise of U.S. military aircraft coming and going has risen markedly as tensions escalate over North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.

And yet on on Feb. 4, residents of the city of Nago, with a population of 60,000 located roughly in the middle of the prefecture's cigar-shaped main island, elected a new mayor who favors relocating a U.S. Marine Corp. air base to his municipality.

The election victory of Taketoyo Toguchi, who took office on Feb. 8, over a long-time opponent of the base relocation plan, incumbent mayor Susumu Inamine, would suggest the two-decade controversy over moving the base is finally settled.

But the reality is more complex. In part, the election outcome is also a reflection of the fatigue that many opponents of the base's relocation feel, and of the reality that for many people, the economic benefits of the base for the area's struggling economy outweigh the noise and disruption it will bring.

The election was cast as local referendum on whether Nago should accept the plan to build the new air base in the city's Henoko district to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the much more crowded city of Ginowan, about 50 kilometers to the southwest. Headlines referred to Toguchi as a "pro-base challenger," a characterization that may have been too simplistic.

Nago's newly elected mayor Taketoyo Toguchi (Photo by Masaru Shioyama)

"I think a certain number of my supporters were opposed to the relocation to Henoko," Toguchi told reporters at his home the day after the election. "Public opinion is complicated."

According to a member of his campaign, Toguchi's message was that it was time to accept reality and move on, since it was no longer possible to stop the base's relocation.

Toguchi was supported by Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner, Komeito. His message got "a quiet but favorable response" from many voters, the campaign aide said.

Yet exit polls by Kyodo News found that more than 30% of voters who cast ballots for Toguchi were opposed to the Futenma relocation plan.

One reason they may have voted for Toguchi, despite their reservations about the plan, is fatigue from the long fight against it.

"Our town is tired," said a man in his 30s who voted for Toguchi, adding that he wanted the new mayor to revive the city and accept whatever the central government was offering as an incentive to accept the base's relocation.

For many Nago residents, especially young adults, pocketbook issues are foremost, and the jobs and economic opportunities that the base would bring are difficult to resist.

In the fiscal year from April 2014, the per-capita annual income of Nago citizens was 1.92 million yen ($17,600), lower than the prefecture's average of 2.12 million. Many people born and raised in Nago leave the city after finishing school and go to the prefectural capital of Naha to find work.

Other indications too, suggest opposition to the base's relocation is losing steam.

In December 2016, the spirited campaign of then-mayor Inamine against the relocation plan during his eight years in office suffered a major setback, when Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga -- another staunch opponent of the plan -- lost a legal battle with the central government.

The Supreme Court ruled that Onaga's decision to revoke his predecessor's approval for land reclamation off the Nago coast for the new base was illegal. Shore-front development work for the base is now in full swing.

But the crucial battle over the relocation plan could be the next election for prefectural governor, scheduled for autumn.

The current Futenma airbase is located in the much more crowded city of Ginowan.   © Kyodo

Onaga ran in 2014, enraged by his predecessor's approval of land reclamation for the plan. He defeated the incumbent by leading a broad coalition involving the local business community and left-leaning political groups.

It was a departure from his earlier persona. He he had once been a favorite of the prefecture's conservative camp, serving as secretary-general of the LDP's local chapter.

But Inamine's defeat in the Nago mayoral election this month was a heavy blow to Onaga's reelection prospects. Onaga had already been threatened by a leadership struggle within his own support base between conservatives and reformists.

If Onaga does lose the election this autumn, the long struggle over the base's relocation to Nago may finally be at an end.

"If we win in the crucial battle for the governor's office, confrontation over the base plan will be over," said a senior official with the governing administration in Tokyo.

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