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Reverberations of the Nago Mayoral Election

SNA (Tokyo) — Based on his reaction on Sunday night, fighting back tears and barely able to speak, Susumu Inamine was not expecting to lose his bid for a third term as mayor of Nago city, Okinawa. Next to the mayor sat Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga, stoic but distinctly stony-faced as the grim results poured in. Exit polls suggested that Inamine would win, but somehow the last 20% of the votes counted suddenly put challenger Taketoyo Toguchi far ahead.

The Abe government had succeeded in threatening and bribing the residents of the small city into voting for a candidate who, presumably, would be willing to endorse the construction of the new US Marine airbase at Henoko—something which, according to polls, about two-thirds of the local residents oppose.

Toguchi pulled off his impressive victory by refusing to clarify his stance on base construction, while hammering the incumbent Inamine on bread-and-butter issues of employment and economic development. Okinawa is Japan’s poorest prefecture, where a relatively large number of young people grow up beneath the poverty line. Based on the surprising magnitude of his victory (54.6% of votes cast), it would appear that there was indeed an undercurrent of opinion within the city that Inamine had failed to act sufficiently in this sphere.

A related view is that many people in Nago had come to the conclusion that it was hopeless to face the combined power of Tokyo and Washington. The local people could resist all they want, but in the end the resistance would prove futile. One way or another, the powerful forces would simply crush them. That being the case, why not let Toguchi at least negotiate a deal that would bring substantial financial benefits to the local community?

It is not clear yet if Mayor Toguchi regards himself as a puppet of Tokyo or if he plans to assert himself independently. There is one school of thought that says he may prove a tougher nut to crack than his ruling party backers anticipate, especially since the local people really do still oppose the construction of the base.

As for the wider reverberations, Inamine’s loss cannot be viewed as anything other than a heavy blow to the morale of anti-base forces in Okinawa and also to Governor Onaga personally. While polls show that public support for Onaga still runs high, he has not proven to have very effective political coattails at the local level.

Everyone knows that the same kind of ruthless national campaign will be waged against the anti-base governor by the Abe government at the end of this year when he faces reelection. The conservative opponent has not yet been chosen, but Inamine’s fall may lure a strong and ambitious personality into the fray.

The anti-base forces just lost this year’s second-most important election in Okinawa. Their energies must now be directed to winning the main event.

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