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Okinawa election eases pressure on US military base location

Okinawans reelected the incumbent governor, who is less opposed to US military bases than his challenger. The US wants to move ahead with a 2006 deal to relocate Futenma air base within Okinawa.

By Correspondent / November 29, 2010

In this Nov. 11 photo, incumbent Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima waves from a vehicle during his campaign for the Nov. 28 Okinawa gubernatorial election in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, southern Japan.

Kyodo News/AP Photo

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Tokyo

Both Washington and Tokyo may feel they got the lesser of two evils on Sunday as the incumbent governor of Okinawa – the less virulent opponent of US military bases on the island – won a close key gubernatorial election.

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The recent escalation with North Korea might have led election observers to believe that Okinawa would take regional security threats to heart and reconsider its opposition to an unpopular US military base, which has been on the island of Okinawa since 1945. But the presence of the US base in Okinawa continues to dog the Japan-US security alliance.

Both of the leading electoral candidates in this much-watched gubernatorial election expressed opposition to the relocation of the air base within Okinawa, though the eventual winner, Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, has been more conciliatory with Tokyo than his opponent, who wants it removed from Japanese soil completely.

The strategic importance of the security alliance was illustrated Nov. 25, when the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier George Washington was dispatched to Korea from its base in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo. It began naval exercises with South Korea on the same day as the election, following the recent North Korean shelling of the South’s Yeonpyeong Island.

Even more than rising tensions in North Korea, the September clash between a Chinese fishing vessel and a Japanese Coast Guard ship that led to a diplomatic row might have resonated with locals. The disputed Senkaku Islands – the root of the spat – are administered by Okinawa, and claimed by China.

But local anger about the long presence of US forces on the island, and what the islanders see as broken promises by Tokyo to lighten the burden of hosting the troops, seems to have been more powerful even than fear of increasingly belligerent Asian neighbors.

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