The campaign for the Okinawa gubernatorial election has officially started. The race was called following the death of Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who opposed the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the southern Okinawa city of Ginowan to the Henoko district of the city of Nago in the central part of the southernmost prefecture.
With its location close to residential areas, the Futenma facility is said to be the most dangerous military base in the world. Both Atsushi Sakima and Denny Tamaki have called for the return of the land plot on which the base is located at "the earliest possible date." While Tamaki is calling for its closure without relocation, Sakima has not made it clear if he supports the base transfer or not.
Sakima says he will tackle the issue "in a realistic manner" by negotiating directly with the governments of Japan and the United States. He appears to be seeking economic support from the government with an eye on accepting the relocation.
The politics of Okinawa has long been a contest between the progressive force opposing the Japan-U.S. security alliance and the existence of American bases, and the conservative camp seeking economic benefits rather than confrontation over the bases.
Since 1996, when Tokyo and Washington agreed on the return of the Futenma base land, five gubernatorial races have taken place but no candidate has won by calling for the acceptance of the base's move to Henoko -- although four of the winners, except Onaga who came out on top in the 2014 contest, were strictly conservative.
Onaga emerged victorious in the election four years ago by organizing an "all Okinawa" force of supporters including both conservative and progressive groups, under the banner of "no to a new base in Henoko." This posture is based on his thinking that political stripes do not matter in the fight against the reality with an overconcentration of American bases in Okinawa, when the burden of hosting them should be shared by Japan as a whole.
In his first speech in the election campaign that kicked off on Sept. 13, Tamaki emphasized Onaga's call for "putting identity before ideology." He intends to win over those who supported Onaga in the last election by characterizing his bid for governorship as a campaign to avenge the late governor, but it cannot be denied that his camp has leaned toward the progressive side with the demise of Onaga.
Sakima, in contrast, is calling for a transition "from tension to dialogue" with the realization that confrontation between the Okinawa and central governments deepened under Onaga's governorship. He should clarify the direction of his dialogue with the Abe administration over the Henoko relocation issue.
The will voters expressed four years ago cannot be ignored. No matter who wins this election, a discussion will become necessary between Tokyo and Naha over how to share the burden of hosting U.S. bases, including the base relocation to Henoko.
We hope to see the candidates having a sincere and meaningful debate and provide the voters with necessary information so that they can make a choice.