Kyodo News/AP
Nago city Mayor Susumu Inamine and his wife Ritsuko celebrate after he was reelected in the mayoral election in Nago, on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, Sunday, Jan. 19. The election is being closely watched from Washington to Tokyo as a referendum on long-delayed plans to move a US air base to the community of 62,000 people.

Shaky future for US base in Okinawa

An Okinawa mayor won reelection on a platform opposing the construction of a new US base, challenging US-Japan efforts to boost defenses amid China's growing military strength.

The decisive reelection of a mayor opposed to US bases in Okinawa raised doubts today as to whether the US and Japan can ever build a new Marine air base seen as vital for Japan's defense at a time of mounting problems with China.

As Susumu Inamine raised his arms in triumph over his election on an anti-base platform in sprawling Nago City, Okinawa, protests mounted against plans to build the marine air station in the village of Henoko on the city’s eastern coast. Demonstrators camped out on the beach shouted, “No US bases” while Okinawa officials questioned whether Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could make good on his promise to build the base regardless of local opposition.

The rebuff at the polls to construction of the base at Henoko came as a blow to efforts by both the US and Japan to shore up defenses in a time of rising concerns about China’s growing military strength. Japan and China regularly confront one another in the air and on the waters around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, about 250 miles southwest of the Okinawa capital of Naha.

Japan, which took them over in 1895, maintains control, but China has been escalating its longstanding claims to the islands, which it calls Diaoyu. Most recently China has included them in an air-defense identification zone that conflicts with Japanese air space. 

The election of Mr. Inamine to a second four-year term against a candidate handpicked by Mr. Abe’s ruling Liberal-Democratic Party  is “very bad, but the government has to push on,” says Masashi Nishihara, president of the Research Institute for Peace and Security here. “We will have to prepare to face it.”

US bases on Okinawa are seen as a critical element in President Obama’s goal of a “pivot” of US defense interests from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific region. About 28,000 US troops are based on Okinawa, more than half of the 50,000 US troops in Japan. The largest US Air Force base in the region is in Kadena, north of Naha, and Marines operate out of a number of bases, including the Futenma Marine air station in a densely populated area north of Naha. The US and Japan agreed in 2006 to close the Futenma base, moving all its assets to Henoko.

The US has also announced plans to send at least 10,000 of the Marines to bases in Guam, Australia, and Hawaii, but analysts see no practical alternative to Henoko. “There’s no other place,” says Mr. Nishihara. “Okinawa is very important for security. The US presence on Okinawa is very important.”

Fierce opposition

Local officials predict, however, that the result will be severe clashes between protesters and government forces – and that in the end the government may have to give up the plan for the base. 

Polls have shown that more than 80 percent of Okinawa’s 1.4 million people oppose construction of the base despite promises to close the Futenma air station. Reasons for opposition range from crimes committed by US troops to noise pollution to fears of accidents, notably helicopter crashes. 

“Mayor Inamine will try to stop construction,” says Eima Kishimoto in the Nago City planning department. “Demonstrators will take action. It’s a big victory for them.”                        

The election in Nago presents an immediate challenge to the governor of Okinawa, Hirokazu Nakaima, who last month endorsed construction of the Henoko base after Abe promised approximately $300 million a year for Okinawa in the form of economic aid for the next eight years - a commitment clearly tied to construction of the base. Abe also sought to win over Nago City voters with a promise of an extra $50 million in aid, but they cast 19,839 votes for Inamine and only 15,684 votes for Bunshin Suematsu, a former Nago official and Abe's handpicked candidate.

Officials at the Okinawa prefecture office in Naha now indicate that perhaps Mr. Nakaima did not really commit himself to espousing construction of the base.

“I think Henoko will be very difficult,” says Eigo Yamamoto, a planning official on the Okinawa prefectural staff.  “Our government demands other places for the base” – that is, on the large southern Japanese island of Kyushu in what Okinawans refer to as “mainland Japan.”         

But construction of a new base on Kyushu – or the enlargement of existing bases – has also run into strong local opposition. Henoko was the final choice in part because it’s in an isolated region away from major population centers on Okinawa.

Power struggle

The question remains whether Okinawa officials, in Nago City or at the prefectural level, really have the power to undermine the will of the central government when it comes to building the base as agreed on by the US and Japan in 2006.

“There are lots of small ways to sabotage the base,” says Hideaki Kase, author of some 50 books on Japanese defense. He adds, however, “I am sure the Okinawa governor will find a way somehow to overcome the problem.”

Others are far less certain.

“It seems the Japanese government cannot do it without cooperation from Okinawa prefecture or Nago City,” says Masaaki Gabe, who specializes in international politics at the local University of the Ryukyus.

The idea of  moving the Marine air station in Futenma was first agreed on in 1996, after the rape of a 12-year-old girl by a sailor and two marines. That case triggered massive demonstrations that are still staged periodically in response to crimes by US servicemen, as well as anti-base protests.            

The reason for moving the station is to “reduce danger, but in reality nothing has been done in 18 years,” says Mr. Gabe. “It means the plan itself is impracticable, but still the government is hanging on to it."

Rather than call for the US and Japan to shut down the bases, as the staunchest critics have demanded, "It’s time for the US and the Abe administration to think what is the basic problem with this plan and reconsider it at this opportunity," Gabe says.

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