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Okinawa gubernatorial race starts; results could affect other elections

Candidate for Okinawa governor, Denny Tamaki, right, shakes hands with his supporters after the launch of his campaign in the village of Ie on a small Okinawa prefectural island on Sept. 13, 2018. (Mainichi)
Atsushi Sakima, who is running for governor of Okinawa, shakes hands with a supporter in the northern Okinawan prefectural city of Nago the day his campaign launched on Sept. 13, 2018. (Mainichi)

NAHA/TOKYO -- The Okinawa gubernatorial election has officially kicked off as a face-off between a candidate backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and a contender supported mainly by the opposition camp.

The top issues of contention in the race include the planned relocation of a U.S. base inside the southernmost prefecture and how to shore up the local economy. The Abe side, however, has attempted to "hide" the controversial base issue. The opposition is playing it up but is emphasizing its ability to meet voters' economic needs, in a bid to broaden its support base among conservatives.

The election is effectively a race between Atsushi Sakima, 54, former mayor of the southern Okinawan city of Ginowan, backed by Abe, and Denny Tamaki, 58, a former House of Representatives member opposing the base move. The Sept. 30 election will be the first major poll following the Sept. 20 presidential race of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in which Abe is seeking a third term, and the gubernatorial battle thus may have far-reaching repercussions in national politics.

-- Ruling coalition focusing on economy, 'hiding' base issue

Sakima kicked off his campaign on Sept. 13 in the prefectural capital of Naha, where approximately 20 percent of Okinawa prefectural voters are registered. "Nothing will come about from antagonism or division. I will convey the feelings of the Okinawan people (to the central government) through dialogue," he declared.

Atop his campaign van stood senior officials from four parties backing Sakima, including Komeito, the LDP's junior coalition partner in national politics. The arrangement was designed to demonstrate Sakima's proximity to and cooperation with the Abe administration.

At a news conference the same day in Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga suggested that the economy was the main point of contention in the Okinawa gubernatorial election. "The question is, who is thinking seriously about the promotion of Okinawa and is suited to lead it into the future," he said.

The Abe administration's strategy for the race is to push the "economy" to the fore and divert voters' attention from the issue of the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan to the Henoko district of the central Okinawan city of Nago.

This approach has worked in other local leadership elections in Okinawa and candidates affiliated with the ruling coalition have been successful.

In contrast, former Gov. Takeshi Onaga won the last gubernatorial election in 2014 by creating an alliance of conservatives and progressives in a bid to stop the relocation. Onaga passed away in August, ushering in the latest poll to select his successor two months earlier than planned.

The U.S. base issue is very contentious in Okinawa. Three quarters of American military facilities in Japan are concentrated in the prefecture where the fiercest land battle of World War II in the country was fought in the last months of the war, killing one-third of its residents. It was not until 1972, 27 years after the war's end, that Okinawa was returned to Japan from American control. This reality and history is a factor in the LDP's posture of playing down the base issue and focusing on the economy in the election.

-- Abe administration looks to lock in Komeito support

Another factor the Abe administration thinks is vital to win the upcoming race is to lock in the support of Komeito, the LDP's junior coalition partner. Administration officials think that in the 2014 gubernatorial poll, their preferred candidate backing the relocation lost because Komeito, known for its well organized election apparatus, allowed its members to freely choose which candidate to vote for.

The administration therefore took the strategy in the Nago mayoral race this past February of not having its candidate, Taketoyo Toguchi, divulge whether he was for or against the Henoko relocation. Additionally, the candidate obtained the cooperation of Komeito's Okinawa prefectural headquarters, although they are against the relocation. Toguchi won.

In the current gubernatorial race as well, Komeito has revved up its substantial resources, dispatching Minoru Harada, the president of Soka Gakkai lay Buddhist organization serving as Komeito's power base, to Okinawa.

Komeito's role has undergone a radical shift since the last election, in which the party adopted a wait-and-see attitude. At least one person involved with the party told the Mainichi Shimbun, "If you don't go to Okinawa now, you're neither a Komeito member nor a Soka Gakkai member. We will take back Komeito votes that were diverted to Mr. Onaga in the last election."

The ruling coalition takes the view that Tamaki is still leading the race because he is seen as a successor to Onaga and supporters of the former governor or people sympathetic to him would back the candidate.

However, as the ruling coalition pours in massive resources to Okinawa for the race, a senior LDP official expressed confidence in overtaking Tamaki, saying, "We'll be catching up soon enough." Even those in Komeito have jokingly said, "The only thing that worries us now is the steps that will be taken by (Okinawa-born pop star) Namie Amuro (who will be retiring from the entertainment industry on Sept. 16)."

The LDP will wage an all-out war in Okinawa with the presumption that Abe will win his third term as the LDP president in the Sept. 20 party leadership election. LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai and other senior party officials have flown into Okinawa numerous times to stump for Sakima. Chief Deputy Secretary-General Shinjiro Koizumi, who is popular among female voters, is expected to travel to Okinawa on Sept. 16.

Sakima's victory, says one Cabinet minister, will remove an obstacle to the base relocation. "We will put an end to the relocation debate," he emphasized.

Even if Sakima were to lose, the central government is bent on pressing forward with relocation. But failure to win a big poll in the wake of a party presidential election could possibly affect nationwide local elections and the House of Councillors race scheduled for next year.

In recent years, the LDP has found itself losing ground to the opposition and the anti-relocation bloc in Okinawa when it comes to national elections with large constituencies. In the 2016 House of Councillors election, an incumbent LDP Cabinet member was unseated in the prefecture-wide electoral district; in the 2017 House of Representatives poll, the LDP lost in three of four constituencies.

With the death of Onaga, who continued to oppose the base relocation, Henoko has come under the spotlight once again. There's no guarantee that the ruling coalition's strategy of "hiding" this point of contention will reap the results it desires.

--- Contender emphasizes conservative position, status as Onaga's successor

Meanwhile, Denny Tamaki, the other contender, made his first campaign speech in front of the Okinawa Prefectural Government building in Naha on the evening of Sept. 13.

"My opponent says he will 'make day care for children free,' banking on the central government and its subsidies. But that money is guaranteed only if Okinawa promises to accept U.S. military bases," said Tamaki. "Let us Okinawans depend not on the national government, but show we can rely on ourselves."

Before Tamaki took the mic, two local businessmen and senior campaign members spoke. "Let's spread our wings to the right and to the left, and have voters write the name Denny on their ballots," said Yoshimi Teruya, chairman of a construction company who once headed the prefectural contractors' association. Another speaker was Morimasa Goya, chairman of Kanehide Holdings Co., a major retailer and construction giant in Okinawa.

The selection of the two conservative businessmen, according to a person close to Tamaki, was made "to attract votes not only from progressives, but to generate broad appeal." Tamaki even picked former LDP Okinawa chapter adviser and ex-lower house legislator Toshinobu Nakasato as his chief campaign manager.

Tamaki is eager to keep conservative supporters in his campaign because their backing was vital in the 2014 landslide victory of former Gov. Onaga, once a conservative heavyweight in local politics. Onaga won by building the united "All-Okinawa" front that included progressives and conservatives sharing just one position -- their opposition to the Futenma base relocation.

But the Abe administration has gone ahead with construction work at Henoko anyway, and Onaga-backed candidates have lost in a series of mayoral elections against candidates affiliated with the national ruling camp. Moreover, conservative assembly members and corporations have begun to exit the "All-Okinawa" alliance, saying they cannot continue collaborating with progressives with growing influence.

These setbacks have prompted Tamaki, who is a Liberal Party member, to emphasize his position as being "conservative-centrist."

On top of casting himself as a conservative, Tamaki is trying to utilize one more factor to boost his campaign: Onaga's afterimage. He speaks of phrases that were often uttered by Onaga, such as "identity over ideology. The hearts of the Okinawan people will be one." By doing so, Tamaki is leaving the impression that he is succeeding Onaga's reign, and is attempting to recreate a coalition of conservatives and progressives.

A senior official in his campaign, however, recognizes that circumstances are different from what they were four years ago. "Simply objecting to (base construction in) Henoko will not be sufficient to win," said the official. Tamaki's campaign thus focuses also on issues such as economic policy and child-rearing support, and puts energy into winning over voters with no party affiliation through social media.

-- Opposition parties maintain low-profile support for Tamaki

Tamaki has garnered support from opposition parties in national politics including his Liberal Party, but they have chosen to remain behind the scenes because they worry that flaunting their backing may negatively affect his campaign.

The supporters include the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) and the Democratic Party for the People (DPFP). Their predecessor, the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), promoted the Futenma base relocation while in power from 2009 to 2012.

"It's best that we provide support without bothering them," DPFP leader Yuichiro Tamaki said.

The Japanese Communist Party (JCP) also plans to maintain a low-key approach amid criticism from Onaga's conservative supporters for "running too much of the show." Before the official campaign began, a prefectural assembly member from the JCP took the "mature" move of not mentioning their party affiliation.

In any case, the CDP and he DPFP do not have effective local organizations in Okinawa, unlike the JCP and the social democrats with footholds in Okinawa. The CDP just set up a prefectural chapter in late August, and the DPFP was only established in May. A senior CDP official noted with frustration, "The ruling coalition is pumping so much money into the campaign."

(Japanese original by Katsuya Takahashi and Nozomu Takeuchi, Political News Department; Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau; and Tadashi Sano, Kyushu News Department)

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