Key issue for Okinawan governor: US bases

Governor-elect Nakaima was intentionally vague about May accord on US forces realignment.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A hard-fought election here that threatened to jeopardize a major US-Japanese military accord appears to have tilted in favor of Washington and Tokyo.

Okinawa's newly elected governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, has said he won't accept a major realignment of forces agreed to by President Bush and then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. But he will, he says, be willing to negotiate the future of US bases – unlike the opponent he narrowly defeated, Keiko Itokazu, whose campaign centered on closing US bases and sending home US forces. With 98 percent of the vote tallied, Mr. Nakaima won by a total of 343,688 votes to 307,965 for Ms. Itokazu.

The governor's election had been too close to call for weeks – pitting deeply felt Okinawan grievances against the strategic defense policies of two of the world's largest economic powers.

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Even the win by the more flexible Nakaima does not clarify plans for a key runway to be built largely over the ocean off a jutting point in northeast Okinawa. The runway is at the heart of a debate over US forces in Okinawa, and is the linchpin of the realignment plan.

Nakaima's deliberately vague position was designed to allow him to negotiate when he won. That strategy has paid off. His advisers said that in short order, he will go around Okinawa, consulting with local politicians and holding public seminars on realignment. "We're going to take the emotion out of it," a senior campaign adviser said in an interview.

The election has been the subject of intense scrutiny both in Tokyo, which underwrites much of the Okinawan economy, and in Washington. US forces in the Pacific are largely based in camps and bases that dot the island, which lies about 350 miles south of Kyushu and was the scene of the last major battle of World War II. Tokyo does not want to use coercive measures to settle issues here, feeling that to do so will bring outright opposition.

The campaigns of the two candidates diverged outright: Nakaima, an establishment figure of the Liberal Democratic Party and a former vice governor and executive, stressed the benefits of economic development. Itokazu, a former tour guide and Socialist Party leader, hewed to an antibase and antirunway message that struck an emotional chord among Okinawans.

Just last May, the US and Japan outlined to much fanfare a plan of deepening security cooperation between the two Pacific allies. It involves "interoperability" among joint forces, the positioning of ballistic missiles, the shifting of bases and troops inside Okinawa, and a plan to send 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam. Futenma air base, whose runway is surrounded by the city of Naha, would close, and a new runway would open at Camp Schwab.

US officials and military brass considered the plan finished. Yet the close elections in Okinawa clearly signal that Tokyo may still have problems. Under Mr. Koizumi, and further under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, experts say, there's a shift toward defining Okinawa as a national defense issue. "You may see Tokyo begin to treat Okinawa differently, no longer as a local issue, and looking at Okinawa as a matter of security and bilateral relations with the US," says Masaaki Gabe of the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa.

For the Pentagon, Okinawa has been something of a burr under the saddle for more than a decade – one reason why US officials were so pleased with the talks last spring.

"The building of the runway is central to the agreement; it hinges on all the other factors," Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright, commander of US forces Japan, told the Monitor. "It isn't about trying to continue US presence, but redesigning the force and the commitments to make them stronger. We've put together a package that is interrelated and interdependent.... This is an issue for the government of Japan.... This is not the government of Okinawa vs. the USA."

About 90 percent of the population here are ethnic Okinawans. Feelings about Tokyo and the US bases are complicated and often contradictory. Locals point out that 75 percent of the bases in Japan are on Okinawan soil, which makes up 0.6 percent of Japan's territory. Polls this month indicate about 60 percent of Okinawans oppose the move from Futenma to the ocean-jutting runway at Camp Schwab. Yet polls by Asahi Shimbun indicate that economic development was the most important issue in the campaign – with the antibase issue running at only about 15 percent.

"For Okinawans, there is hope and there is reality, and we live in both worlds," says Professor Gabe. "The hope for nearly every person on the street is an end to the bases. The reality is that Japan and the US are part of our economy."

This ambiguity was hinted at by one voter who works in the tourism industry. While he wanted Itokazu to win, he said, "I want the Americans to stay."

Okinawa is a slightly sleepy habitation of moldy buildings and a gleaming new monorail – one of the many public works projects Tokyo pays for. The main bus line shuts down at 9 p.m. Okinawa is a polyglot of tropical island and urban sprawl – where teriyaki steak and pizza, used car lots and gaudy pachinko slot machine joints, drive in restaurants and seaside resorts, blend together, as if Honolulu were morphed onto the New Jersey shore. Every five miles or so, it seems, is a high barbed wire-topped fence, a US military camp or installation. Some 1.3 million people here live amid the densest set of US bases in the world. The US presence has been lived with for years, going through a series of resentment peaks and indifference valleys – depending on events.

In general, Okinawans do not tend to dislike or harbor grudges against individual Americans, and the antibase issue is not an anti-US issue.

For US service personnel at a popular restaurant near Kadena air base, the elections passed quietly. Many were unaware of the elections Sunday. As one marine noted, "We aren't here to get involved in local politics."

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