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Gloves Come Off on Henoko Base Construction

SNA (Tokyo) — The determination of the leaders of the Liberal Democratic Party to get tough on the Henoko base construction issue is becoming apparent to close observers. It has long been a question whether or not Tokyo was really willing to repress the popular will in Okinawa, which clearly opposes the construction of a new US Marine base, but the message is now coming through more openly: Let Okinawan opinions be damned! The base will be built!

The surest sign of this approach is the ultimatum that LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba has issued to three Okinawan lawmakers within the ruling party.

As discussed in the May 2nd article “Cracking the LDP’s Okinawa Chapter,” an earlier wave of pressure induced two of the five Okinawan lawmakers from the ruling party, Kosaburo Nishime and Aiko Shimajiri, to betray their election promises and to endorse the US-Japan plan to build the US Marine base in the pristine Oura Bay.

The other three LDP Okinawan lawmakers, however — Konosuke Kokuba, Masahisa Miyazaki, and Natsumi Higa — all of them freshly elected last December, have so far held true to the anti-base position that they had promised to local voters.

LDP Secretary-General Ishiba let it be known at the end of last week that the obedience of the Okinawa Chapter to the national party is now fully required. Unless the three anti-base lawmakers betray their voters by this coming Wednesday, they face possible expulsion from the ruling party. A similarly threatening message was just delivered to the local party organizational leaders today.

Ishiba has dubbed this hardline approach “easing the environment for the Governor to take a permissive approach.” This refers, of course, to the decision that Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima must shortly make on whether or not to allow landfill operations in Oura Bay to commence.

The agony of the three Okinawan lawmakers was apparent in their various comments to the media upon receiving Ishiba’s ultimatum. Kokuba sounded the most defiant with his remark, “My promise to the voters is heavy. It is not something that can easily be changed.” Miyazaki gave little away: “The situation is changing moment by moment.” Higa sounded like she wants to deflect responsibility: “First of all, I want to follow the Governor’s direction.”

So less than a year after they all joyfully came to the parliament in an electoral landslide, it seems these three Okinawan lawmakers are now being given the unenviable choice of either betraying their voters or exiting the ruling party.

The other fresh indication of the LDP’s disregard for the Okinawan people is taking place in connection with the Nago City mayoral elections scheduled for next January.

It has long been known that the pro-base conservatives would run a candidate who would essentially be an agent of the central government more than a representative of local interests. This candidate could expect to receive as much support as possible in the effort to overthrow anti-base Mayor Susumu Inamine.

The big surprise, however, is that the central government totally botched the rollout.

Instead of one, coordinated pro-base candidate entering the race, two jumped in, virtually assuring that, on the present course, Inamine would be reelected.

The initial game plan seemed to be that a credible, moderate candidate would come in to challenge Inamine and, with quiet but determined outside support, defeat him. The pro-base minority on the Nago City Council eventually settled on prefectural assemblyman Bunshin Suematsu as the most viable, willing challenger. Suematsu himself was planning to maintain a vague stance on base construction so as not to alienate any potential voters who might like him for other reasons.

This game plan was totally overthrown by former Nago Mayor Yoshikazu Shimabukuro, whose ambitions to return to his old post were never really disguised. Shimabukuro has considerable local backing from construction companies and hotel operators who feel that the presence of a new US Marine base would be of direct financial benefit to themselves. Using the excuse that Suematsu had not clearly come out in favor of base construction, Shimabukuro audaciously threw his hat into the ring, thereby upsetting the subtler approach that Tokyo had initially been banking upon.

Any pretense that the politics of the 60,000-strong city of Nago belonged to the local people themselves was cast aside as LDP Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, in Tokyo, made it clear that only one conservative mayoral candidate would be acceptable in Nago.

Suematsu is the candidate that Tokyo wants installed, and so Shimabukuro now faces very heavy pressure to withdraw.

But Shimabukuro did score one signal victory: He forced Suematsu to openly declare in favor of base construction rather than maintain his initially evasive approach.

Whether or not such an open declaration of pro-base sentiment actually has a positive effect on the average Nago voter, however, remains to be seen. One also wonders whether the repeated, heavy-handed interference from Tokyo will lead to Nago voters shrugging with resignation that “nothing can be done” and choosing a conservative, or else rebelling at the affront to popular sovereignty and lining up in greater numbers behind the incumbent Susumu Inamine.

The ruling party is taking the gloves off in its approach to Okinawa. It remains to be seen how much punch the local anti-base movement can respond with. The flow of events will tell us much about the true state of democracy on Japan’s southern island.

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