Bloc backing Okinawa’s anti-U.S. base governor fails to win majority

Candidates backing Okinawa’s governor, a staunch opponent of a key U.S military base relocation plan within the prefecture, failed to secure a majority in Sunday’s local assembly election, in a blow to his struggling strategy to stop the project.

The result came as the central government pushes ahead with its plan to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from a densely populated area in Ginowan to a new facility being built in a coastal area in Nago, both on Okinawa’s main island.

A Liberal Democratic Party candidate (C) celebrates in the city of Tomigusuku with his supporters following his win in the Okinawa prefectural assembly election on June 16, 2024. (Kyodo)

In January, the state started construction work on a part of the relocation site despite strong local opposition.

In the 48-seat prefectural assembly election, candidates who supported Gov. Denny Tamaki obtained 20 seats, while 27 were occupied by those who opposed him and the remaining one went to a neutral candidate. Before the voting, each side had 24 seats.

A candidate (far L) backing Gov. Denny Tamaki reacts in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, late in the night of June 16, 2024, as results came in from the day’s prefectural assembly election. (Kyodo)

As for whether to support the planned base relocation within the prefecture, the assembly is divided with 24 members in favor and 24 against.

“I take (the result) seriously,” Tamaki told reporters in the prefectural capital of Naha on Monday, while admitting he “will be forced into a very difficult position.”

Supporters of Tamaki include the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party, while the Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner in national politics, the Komeito party, are in the anti-Tamaki camp.

There were 75 candidates. Two secured seats without a vote, leaving 73 competing for the remaining 46 seats.

Voter turnout was the lowest on record at 45.62 percent, according to the local election committee.

The southern island prefecture was returned to Japan in 1972, 20 years after Japan regained sovereignty following its defeat in World War II.

Many residents in Okinawa have long hoped for the Futenma base to be moved outside the prefecture, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan. Anti-base sentiment runs deep due to noise, pollution and a number of high-profile crimes committed by American service members.

But the central government continues to stick to the plan, decided in the 1990s, maintaining it is “the only solution” for removing the dangers posed by the Futenma base without undermining the perceived deterrence provided by the Japan-U.S. security alliance.

In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi, the top government spokesman, declined to comment on the result of the Okinawa election, but stressed that the state will “steadily” continue with the project.

The central government began reinforcing soft ground at the relocation site on Jan. 10 in waters on the Oura Bay side of the Henoko area in Nago following its unprecedented decision to override the local authority’s objection to the project.

Even after completing the landfill work, it will take another three years to arrange the transfer, and the actual return to Japanese control of the land where the Futenma base is located is expected to take place in the mid-2030s or later.

Related coverage:

U.S. Marines’ transfer to Guam from Okinawa to start in Dec.

Top court nixes Okinawa governor’s appeal against U.S. base landfill

Japan defense minister meets Okinawa governor over U.S. base transfer

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