NAHA, Japan (Kyodo) -- The Japanese government will carry on with a plan to move a key U.S. base within the southern prefecture of Okinawa, officials suggested Thursday, following the death of Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga who had been strongly against the plan.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe praised Onaga, who succumbed to cancer on Wednesday, as a "politician who has literally risked his life to work for the development of Okinawa" despite the ongoing tension between the central and local governments over the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga maintained the government's position that the current plan is the "only solution" for removing the dangers posed by the Futenma base, located in a crowded residential area in Ginowan, without undermining the perceived deterrence provided by the Japan-U.S. alliance.
The death of 67-year-old Onaga will move up the date of the gubernatorial race possibly to September from the originally scheduled November. His four-year term was set to expire in December.
Ruling and opposition parties are expected to step up their preparations for the election, which is likely to serve as a referendum on the base relocation plan to move the Futenma base to the less populated Henoko coastal area of Nago, both in Okinawa.
Many residents of Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan, want the Futenma base to be moved from the island prefecture.
Even after Onaga said he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in May, he had kept mum over whether he would run in the next gubernatorial race, making it difficult for parties supporting him to look for a different candidate.
"It is undeniable that we are lagging behind (in preparations for the election)," a prefectural assembly member on Onaga's side said.
Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, meanwhile, has decided to field Ginowan Mayor Atsushi Sakima, 54, who is known for his relatively close ties with senior officials of the central government.
But ruling parties are worried that the death of Onaga will embolden opponents of the base relocation plan to unite to counter Sakima. "If relocation opponents form a united front, it would be a threat to us," a senior ruling party official said.
Under the election law, the gubernatorial election to choose Onaga's successor will be held within 50 days after the Okinawa prefectural election board is officially notified of the death of the incumbent.
In Okinawa's capital Naha, many people made condolence visits to Onaga's home. Flags at the prefectural government building were displayed at half-staff.
"He looked as if he was sleeping. We lost an important person for both Okinawa and Japan," one visitor said.
Okinawa-born pop singer Namie Amuro, who received an award from Onaga for inspiring the local people in May, said in a statement posted on her website, "I am very surprised at the sudden sad news."
She recalled how the governor spoke to her kindly during the award ceremony even though he must not have been in a good condition.
"Gov. Onaga thought about Okinawa and devoted himself to Okinawa. I hope his passion will to be passed on and that Okinawa will remain a place that is loved by many people," she said.