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A Democratic Victory in Nago

SNA (Nago) — Shingetsu News Agency President Michael Penn reflects on his coverage of the Nago mayoral elections of January 19, 2014, and what they meant for the progress, and limitations, of democracy in Japan.


Michael Penn: I had the date of January 19, 2014, circled on my calendar many months in advance. Four years ago as the first part of my transition from academia to journalism, I had covered the Nago mayoral elections, and seen with my own eyes Susumu Inamine’s election as the mayor of the city, running on a platform of opposing the construction of a new US Marine airbase, here, along Henoko beach—an area under the Nago municipal authority.

For years the Japanese and US governments simply ignored the results of the Nago elections and carried on as if local permission were only a matter of time, but Inamine never bent, and so the Japanese government’s plan was clearly that he must be crushed.

Bunshin Suematsu was the candidate drafted into the role of challenger this time, and government ministers were sent, and clearly a lot of money was spent to overthrow Inamine and to clear the way for the construction of the base. As for the people of Nago, many of them seemed rather displeased to be treated as if their opinions didn’t matter and as if they could be intimidated or bought off to obey the central government’s will. Mayor Susumu Inamine was effective into tapping into their sentiment.

Susumu Inamine: Whether to agree to the transfer of Henoko base or to say “no” to the transfer of the base—that is the clear point of debate in this election. Those who have gathered here, all of you say “no,” I believe. And to our little country town of some 61,000 people, high government men and ruling party officials keep coming here. Too bad they aren’t just coming to swim at our beach! And why are such national leaders coming to our little town? They’ve come here to take control of the future of our little town. The citizens of Nago must decide about Nago for themselves, and the citizens of Nago should choose their own mayor—and it is the people of Nago who reject the base construction.

Michael Penn: All along, Inamine and his colleagues were well aware that the Nago elections had gained a significance for Japanese society that went far beyond what is at stake for a local mayoral race.

Susumu Inamine: Is Japan a democratic country, may I ask you? This election is also about the question of Japanese democracy.

Michael Penn: And then the big day came. It was January 19, election day. Polls suggested that Inamine would win, but nobody could be sure until the ballots were counted. That evening at the Inamine campaign headquarters, they waited tensely for the results.

The exit polls showed that the people of Nago opposed the construction of Henoko airbase by the overwhelming margin of 68% to 27%, or by well over a 2:1 margin. This was the basis of Inamine’s victory, and the candidate himself was crystal clear on this point.

Susumu Inamine: The Japanese government says it will move the base to Henoko, but the people of Nago and Okinawa reject transfer inside the prefecture. This is the consensus view of the Okinawa people. In regard to the building of this new base at Henoko, we will absolutely not accept it and will not obey orders. No base will be built on our land or at our sea.

Michael Penn: I knew, and many of the others here knew, that the Japanese and US government would again try to ignore this election, and to deny that it was really about the base construction plan, or that it reflected the judgment of the people. Things that are so patently obvious here in Nago somehow get easily obfuscated in Tokyo and Washington by those who do not know, because they do not want to know. When I see democracy and the peoples’ will disregarded by powerful leaders in such in a fashion, I wonder, sadly, if it might not end tragically with the unnecessary death or injuries of innocent people. I hope that something short of that will open peoples’ eyes before that day comes.

Michael Penn, in Nago, for the Shingetsu News Agency.

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