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Late former Okinawa Gov. Ota praised by ruling, opposition members

In this February 1997 file photo, Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota, left, shakes hands with Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto at the latter's office in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. (Mainichi)

Members of both ruling and opposition parties lamented the passing of former Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota, who dedicated himself to relieving Okinawa of the heavy burden of hosting large swaths of U.S. military bases, recalling him as a "great governor" and describing his death as "shocking."

Ota, who survived the fierce Battle of Okinawa toward the end of World War II and later served as Okinawa Prefecture governor for eight years, died of pneumonia and respiratory failure at a hospital in Naha on the morning of June 12. He was 92.

Kantoku Teruya, a House of Representatives member of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) elected from the Okinawa No. 2 constituency, expressed regret at Ota's death as Teruya had served as a senior campaign strategist for Ota in the 1990 and 1994 Okinawa gubernatorial elections, in which Ota achieved victory.

"He survived through the tragic Battle of Okinawa, and later erected 'The Cornerstone of Peace,' on which the names of all victims of that battle are inscribed to console their souls, in an effort to send a message of peace from Okinawa to the international community," Teruya said. "He was a great governor, and for Okinawa his death means that a 'giant star' has fallen."

According to Teruya, Ota fell sick at the end of last year and was admitted to a hospital in Okinawa Prefecture. When Teruya last met Ota at a hospital on May 19, Ota was unable to speak, and when Teruya told him, "Please get well soon" while rubbing his hands, Ota looked straight into his eyes.

After completing two terms as Okinawa governor, Ota went into national politics, serving a single term as a House of Councillors member of the SDP. SDP deputy leader Mizuho Fukushima reminisced about Ota, saying, "He knew firsthand the absurdity and senselessness of war, and he often talked about it to me."

After the rape of a young Okinawa girl by U.S. servicemen in 1995 sparked widespread protests, Ota stepped up his demand that the central government revise the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, and defied the national government by refusing to sign leases of land for U.S. military bases on behalf of local landowners who objected to renewing lease contracts.

"He worked so hard to represent the feelings of Okinawa residents without giving in an inch to the central government, and tackled head-on the problems arising from the U.S. Air Station Futenma. His passing is really shocking," Fukushima said.

At a press conference on June 12, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed his condolences over Ota's death, saying, "In the midst of turbulent times, he tirelessly strived to address Okinawa's military base issue and economic promotion."

Liberal Democratic Party Executive Acting Secretary-General Hakubun Shimomura commented about Ota, "He had a tremendous presence and was full of love for his home prefecture of Okinawa. Although he and I took different positions, I would like to highly praise him as a politician who made such an enormous contribution for the good of Okinawa."

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