Former Nago municipal assemblyman and newcomer Taketoyo Toguchi won the city's Feb. 4 mayoral election, unseating incumbent Susumu Inamine, who is opposed to the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the city, and dealing a serious blow to anti-relocation Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga.
Toguchi was backed by the local chapters of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner in the National Diet, Komeito, as well as the central government promoting the Futenma transfer from the prefectural city of Ginowan to the Henoko district of Nago. Inamine, meanwhile, was endorsed by the "All Okinawa" anti-relocation movement including Gov. Onaga, but failed to capture his third term in office.
As the local election came under national spotlight as a prelude to the Okinawa gubernatorial race scheduled ahead of the expiration of Onaga's tenure in December, Inamine's debacle in the mayoral race sent shockwaves throughout the anti-relocation camp led by Onaga for the loss of the pivotal figure in the movement.
The city of Nago has been wavering between pro- and anti-relocation sentiments ever since the United States agreed to return all of the land used by the Futenma airbase to Japan in 1996. While pro-relocation candidates had conquered the mayoral race three consecutive times since 1998, the momentum was reversed by the two victories in a row scored by anti-relocation candidate Inamine from 2010. The latest election reinstated a prospective mayor backed by the pro-relocation force.
It is little wonder that the city's nearly 50,000 eligible voters were fed up with the repetition of pro- and anti-relocation questionnaires in the name of elections over the past two decades.
Yet, the Feb. 4 race was the first mayoral election since construction work to reinforce the Henoko coastlines commenced. This may have given some voters the impression that, even if they were against the base transfer, there was no way to have the ongoing construction halted.
The central government has been granting special subsidies to areas centering on Henoko for three years. Such pork-barreling no doubt served to deepen the divide between residents in favor of and against the relocation plan.
"I don't think the election results show voters' willingness to accept the base move," Toguchi said, adding, "Even among my supporters are those against the base relocation. There are mixed emotions among voters."
He may be honest in his comment. During his election campaigns, Toguchi never once clarified his stance toward the Henoko relocation, proof his victory does not immediately translate as voters' approval of the base transfer.
Once he takes office, the new mayor's first job should be to patch up the schism over the base issue that has separated local residents for so many years. Toguchi is urged to focus on how to reconcile the conflicting parties and bring them together.
Okinawa became a fierce battleground in the final days of the Pacific War, and subsequently came under U.S. military control for 27 years after the end of the war. While U.S. bases in Japan's main islands were eventually returned, Okinawa remained left behind, forming the basis for today's overconcentration of U.S. bases in the southernmost prefecture.
To add to the historic ordeal, Okinawa just recently saw a spate of accidents involving U.S. military aircraft, including a chopper dropping a window frame onto an elementary school playground. During a recent Diet session, Prime Minister Abe pledged to "stand by Okinawa Prefecture residents" in relation to the base issue.
Nonetheless, the same prime minister commented on Feb. 5 that "I would like to express my gratitude to the residents of Nago" for the victory of a candidate backed by his party and other groups in the pro-relocation camp -- thus betraying his true mindset of only dividing local residents into pro- or anti-relocation factions.
Despite the election triumph, the Abe administration should not play up the outcome as voters' confidence in its push to build a replacement facility in Henoko.