NAHA, Japan: Residents of Japan’s Okinawa on Sunday (Monday in Manila) elected a governor who opposes plans to relocate a US military base within the island chain, a fresh setback in efforts to resolve a thorny issue in military relations.
Voters in the southern prefecture chose Takeshi Onaga over the incumbent Hirokazu Nakaima, Kyodo News agency reported, citing the local election board in Okinawa.
Kyodo described the victory as a “landslide” win for Onaga, who secured 360,820 votes to incumbent Nakaima’s 261,076, according to Okinawa’s local election board.
Onaga’s apparent victory is a significant blow to the central government because the governor can veto the landfill work needed for a new base to be built.
In his first comments, the 64-year-old indicated he would do just that.
Any veto would leave Prime Minister Shinzo Abe having either to overrule locally-elected officials – risking charges of authoritarianism – or reverting to the cajoling and persuading of recent years, which would not be popular with Japan’s close ally the United States.
It would also take some of the wind out of Abe’s sails just days before he is expected to announce a snap general election.
Years of deadlock on the planned base relocation have frustrated the Americans and been a thorn in the side of successive Japanese governments.
Okinawa is home to more than half of the 47,000 US service personnel stationed in Japan, and strategically key to the US-Japan security alliance at a time of simmering tensions in East Asia.
But there is widespread local hostility to the military presence, with complaints over noise, the risk of accidents and a perception that the presence of so many young servicemen is a source of crime.
There have been plans for years to move the US Marines’ Futenma Air Station from a crowded urban area to a sparsely populated coastal district elsewhere on Okinawa – some 50 kilometers (30 miles) to the north of the current location.
But opponents like Onaga say Okinawa already hosts a disproportionate share of the US military presence in Japan, and the US base should be moved outside the islands altogether.
Incumbent governor Nakaima stands accused of betraying the islanders after striking a deal with Tokyo last year to approve the relocation within Okinawa.
In what critics said amounted to a bribe, Abe pledged a huge cash injection to the local economy in return for Nakaima reversing years of opposition to the move, which was first mooted in the 1990s.