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Democracy at Stake in New Battle of Okinawa

Onaga Street Short

Takeshi Onaga campaigns in streets of Naha on November 15, 2014 (SNA)

SNA (Tokyo) — On November 16, a new governor was elected in Okinawa, Japan, pledging to take on the governments of both Japan and the United States to stop the construction of a controversial US Marine airbase in his prefecture.

Governor-Elect Takeshi Onaga hardly fits the profile of a political radical, having served 14 years as Mayor of Naha, the island’s largest city, and as a longtime member of Japan’s conservative ruling party.

The scope of Onaga’s electoral victory over incumbent Governor Hirokazu Nakaima was much larger than the media polls had predicted, defeating him by almost 100,000 votes out of the approximately 700,000 votes cast.

All sides agreed that construction of the new US Marine airbase along the pristine coastline of Henoko was the central issue at contention in this election.

Governor Nakaima had been reelected in November 2010 promising to oppose construction of the base, but through intense political pressure and generous subsidies offered by the central government, he suddenly reversed his position at the end of 2013. Critics accused him of “betrayal” and the governor’s popularity plummeted. Last month’s gubernatorial election was the first chance for the Okinawan public to comprehensively pronounce their own verdict.

But most analysts believe that the Abe administration will not be willing to accept the clear and repeated judgement of the people of Okinawa.

Michael Cucek, Adjunct Fellow at Temple University Japan and one of the keenest observers of Japanese politics, believes that Governor-Elect Onaga will be listened to with great courtesy, but “underneath the silky treatment will be a cold, iron will to proceed with the move of the functions of Futenma to Henoko.”

Futenma is the base where the US Marines currently have their air station, dominating the central Okinawan city of Ginowan. A long series of incidents and accidents—most notably a horrific rape of a 12-year-old girl in 1995 and a Marine helicopter crashing into a local university in 2004—have worn out their welcome, leading to the US plan to construct an entirely new airbase at Henoko, a less populated area of northern Okinawa, but still only 50 kilometers distant from the current location.

Governor Nakaima attempted to utilize the tactic of “divide and rule” in last month’s election, arguing that relocation of the US Marines to Henoko was the only viable alternative to having them stay indefinitely in the middle of Ginowan City.

One of the slogans featured in his reelection campaign was thus “Save the Children of Futenma!”

When SNA mentioned this slogan to Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine, whose city’s area encompasses Henoko beach, he smiled sardonically and observed, “There are children in Nago as well as in Futenma. The numbers may be smaller, but that doesn’t mean they would be safe. From the perspective of democratic society, the value of the life of one person is not less than the value of a hundred.”

Takeshi Onaga assumes his office as Governor of Okinawa on December 10, and all sides expect a clash to develop between his prefectural government and the Japanese national government early next year.

The first field of battle is likely to be a legal struggle. The Okinawa prefectural government’s consent is needed to construct the military base, and that’s precisely what Governor Nakaima delivered in December 2013. Governor-Elect Onaga is exploring the possibility of revoking that permission, which would be the most direct manner of halting construction.

“The Abe administration is convinced it has the law on its side,” notes Michael Cucek. “It knows that while the lower courts might issue rulings that could interrupt construction, the Supreme Court won’t go there.”

Should Mr. Onaga fail in this first stratagem, he will be forced to other methods of obstruction and harassment. He has already mentioned, for example, that he is willing to go to the United Nations and do what he can to embarrass the governments of the United States and Japan should they move forward and forcefully continue construction.

As to the question of whether or not it will be Mr. Onaga who bends, following the path of Governor Nakaima in at first rejecting and then accepting the base at Henoko, everyone interviewed by SNA, from Mayor Inamine to national lawmakers to the activists holding sit-ins, all say that they have faith in Mr. Onaga and trust the sincerity of his opposition.

They commonly point out that he gave up his comfortable position as Mayor of Naha and risked his entire career to knock off an incumbent governor. They point out that Mr. Onaga has been saying the same things for many years, and that his opposition to the base construction plan is a matter of personal conviction, and not political posturing.

In fact, one point that is often under-appreciated—and will likely be deliberately obfuscated in the political battles ahead—is that Mr. Onaga is still a conservative and fundamentally a supporter of the US-Japan military alliance: What he firmly objects to is the unfair burden of hosting US troops that has been shouldered by Okinawa for generations.

Unlike the rest of Japan, Okinawa was the site of a cataclysmic ground battle in 1945 that killed roughly one-third of the island’s civilian population. Thereafter, Okinawa remained a military colony of the United States for a further 27 years, long after main island Japan had gained its independence.

Most critics point out that Okinawa is still home to more than half of US forces in Japan. It is the nation’s most remote and poorest prefecture, with a history and culture that is somewhat different from and sometimes looked down upon by other Japanese.

Therefore, it is thought that Tokyo wishes to contain the political backlash of hosting US Marines in as politically insignificant a location as possible—Okinawa.

Governor-Elect Onaga repeatedly explains, “Rather than being about ideology, this struggle is about identity.”

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