Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, a conservative who raised the banner of the "All Okinawa" movement transcending conservative and liberal camps in opposing construction of a new U.S. military base off the coast of Henoko in the city of Nago in the central part of the southernmost prefecture, has passed away.
Onaga was a heavyweight conservative who served for a long time as a prefectural assembly member, mayor of the city of Naha and a municipal legislator in a political environment where conservatives and liberals have vied for power since before Okinawa's return to Japan from American rule in 1972.
Conservatives place importance on local traditions and culture while avoiding rapid changes. Okinawan conservatives accepted the reality of the presence of American bases, and attempted to promote the local economy to differentiate themselves from liberals opposing those bases and the bilateral security treaty between Japan and the United States. However, the central government's failure to keep its course on the planned relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma irritated conservatives. The administration of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama from the former Democratic Party of Japan promised to relocate the base outside Okinawa, but scrapped the pledge by the time he left power in June 2010 after a nine-month stint.
The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, meanwhile, has maintained strong-arm tactics and insists that the base relocation to Henoko is the only option.
Prime Minister Abe has used a number of catchphrases such as "departure from the postwar regime" and "recovering Japan," but for Okinawa, the postwar regime is embodied in its extremely heavy burden of hosting U.S. bases, rooted in former occupation by the American military.
Does the Japan referred to by the premier include Okinawa? This has been the suspicion local residents have held against the central government and the Liberal Democratic Party, a conservative force leading the ruling coalition in the National Diet. And this mistrust moved Onaga to oppose the Henoko relocation plan.
The confrontation between conservatives and liberals was accordingly transformed into "all Okinawa" support for Onaga by "Okinawan identity," which the governor emphasized time and again.
As the prefectural government's 21st century vision indicates, Okinawa is seeking to be economically independent by becoming a hub of international exchange in the Asia-Pacific region.
Okinawa is bent on removing its economy from dependence on American bases. But Tokyo, despite its obligation to support Okinawa's initiative, has pressed a package of base relocation and economic support on Okinawa. Accepting such a maneuver by the national government is against Okinawan identity.
When Gov. Onaga met with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga after assuming the governorship, he attacked the central government's position as "corruption of politics."
However, the options available to the prefecture were quite limited. The governor died amid his move to retract permission given for the reclamation of the sea off the coast of Henoko for the relocation of the U.S. base, and his death has deeply shaken people who are opposed to the base project. Predicting the results of the upcoming gubernatorial election, which will be held as early as September, is no easy task.
As a conservative politician who was born and raised under the U.S. occupation, Onaga challenged the contradiction marked by Okinawa's burden of hosting U.S. bases. While he has passed away, settlement of the issue is no closer than before.