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.
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.
Options for removal
The US is keen to move ahead with a 2006 agreement – reconfirmed in May this year – on relocating the US Marine Futenma Air Base within Okinawa to another location in Okinawa as part of a reorganization that will move 8,000 Marines to Guam.
"We've produced a shared game plan on the way forward, and we will continue to work with Japan to carry it out," US State Department spokesperson Philip Crowley told a news conference in Washington last week.
Japan, however holds a different view. "The 2006 accord was struck without consultations with us and we have not been provided with convincing explanations," said eventual winner Governor Nakaima during the campaign.
Failure to find a solution to the relocation of Futenma has already cost one prime minister his job, and his beleaguered successor, Naoto Kan, is keen to avoid becoming embroiled in the same way. Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned less than eight months after his party’s historic election win last year, when his ratings plummeted following perceived weakness in dealing with the US over the issue.
The leaders of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan in Tokyo are in favor of moving the base within Okinawa, while its local branch wants it moved to another part of Japan. The DPJ, though, didn’t run its own candidate or officially back either of the two independents, who were neck and neck through the campaign.
It's not the US, it's the economy
Governor Nakaima had previously accepted a plan to move the base to a less densely populated part of Okinawa, but appears to have hardened his tone as it became clear that local opposition was still strong. Nevertheless, in his acceptance speech he held out an olive branch to Tokyo by speaking of the need to “think about the economic well-being of Okinawa.”
The Okinawan economy is dependent on both the spending generated by the military bases and the public money it receives as a form of compensation for housing three-quarters of the US military bases in Japan. A 10-year program to foster new industry on the island comes to an end in 2012, along with related funding.
"I hope Mr. Nakaima will stick to his election pledge and realize the transfer of the base out of the prefecture," said defeated candidate Yoichi Iha.
Turnout in the election was around 60 percent, just below the rate in the 2006 election when Nakaima first won office.