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Okinawa Gov. Onaga's death shocks supporters, leaves LDP wary of next election

Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who had disclosed to the public that he had pancreatic cancer and was undergoing treatment, died on Aug. 8 at the age of 67. The next gubernatorial election, which was set to take place in November when Onaga's four-year term was up, is now likely to be held on Sept. 23 or 30.

Construction of a new U.S. military base in the Henoko district of the northern Okinawa prefectural city of Nago -- to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, in southern Okinawa Prefecture -- is expected to become the main issue of contention in the upcoming election.

Those opposed to the base's construction must now reconsider their election strategy, and cannot hide their shock at the news of Onaga's death. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had already decided to field 54-year-old Ginowan Mayor Atsushi Sakima in the gubernatorial race, is also on edge over how Onaga's death will affect the election.

Five opposition members of the Diet elected in Okinawan constituencies, including House of Representatives lawmakers Seiken Akamine of the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) and Denny Tamaki of the Liberal Party, as well as House of Councillors independent Keiko Itokazu, had met with Okinawa Prefectural Assembly members in support of Gov. Onaga in the Okinawa prefectural capital of Naha around noon on Aug. 8. Many of the attendees had voiced their desire to have the governor declare his candidacy for a second term as early as possible. It was a mere 2 1/2 hours later that the Okinawa Prefectural Government announced that Gov. Onaga's condition had deteriorated. One source who had participated in that meeting solemnly said, "I'm in such great shock. I'm speechless."

After he went public about his battle with cancer, Onaga had not made any clear indications whether or not he was going to run in the next gubernatorial race. The Onaga camp had banked on the governor's recovery, but now that he has passed, a search for his successor has become a task of the utmost urgency. A Diet member from an opposition party who attended the abovementioned meeting said, "We must field a candidate who can hang on and fulfill Gov. Onaga's dying wishes."

Onaga, who was once the secretary-general of the LDP's Okinawa prefectural chapter, became governor in the previous election in 2014 by winning the support not only of progressives, but of conservatives. In response to Onaga's death, JCP leader Kazuo Shii released a statement Aug. 8, expressing his wish for another "All Okinawa" victory in the gubernatorial election. "Okinawa's future lies in a coalition that tears down the barriers between conservatives and progressives. We are determined to carry on (Gov. Onaga's) dying wishes, and continue fighting," the statement read.

At the same time, however, Kiyomi Tsujimoto, the Diet affairs chief of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), admitted that it will be difficult to field an appropriate candidate. She told members of the press on Aug. 8, "Mr. Onaga garnered the trust of many people in Okinawa. He's a hard act to follow."

An Okinawa Prefectural Assembly member who supported Gov. Onaga said, "Even if we find a candidate to replace (Onaga), we don't know if they'll be able to become a leader who can bring together both conservatives and progressives."

Meanwhile, the central government and ruling LDP are placing a great deal of importance on the Okinawa gubernatorial race, as victory is needed to advance their plan to build the U.S. military base in Nago's Henoko district.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and other government and LDP officials worked behind closed doors with the LDP's Okinawa prefectural chapter, which led to Ginowan Mayor Sakima's declaration of his Okinawa gubernatorial candidacy on July 30. Tokyo was able to at least back a candidate for a Nov. 18 election -- the original date set for the gubernatorial election, had Onaga served his full term -- but the central government is now concerned that Sakima will not have enough time to prepare, and that the Ginowan mayor would be at a disadvantage if the race is perceived as a battle to avenge Onaga's death.

If election day is set for late September, it will also overlap with the LDP's presidential election, planned to be announced on Sept. 7 and held on Sept. 20. Prime Minister Abe will be forced to take part in both, especially since even if he wins in the LDP presidential race, but loses immediately afterward in the Okinawa gubernatorial race, he runs the risk of losing support.

"It's good that we'd already decided on Mr. Sakima, but we don't yet know how we're going to campaign for the election," a senior government official said on the night of Aug. 8.

Shortly before Gov. Onaga's death, upon hearing that Deputy Gov. Kiichiro Jahana would be filling in for Onaga, a senior official at the prime minister office denied that Onaga's condition had any impact on plans to build a base in Henoko to replace Futenma, saying, "Reclamation work (in Henoko) will continue without any changes. The construction and the state of Gov. Onaga's illness are not related."

A former defense minister and member of the LDP expressed confidence that plans for the new base would not fall through. "It may take time going to court, but I expect that Okinawa Prefecture's retraction will be ruled void. The base relocation work will continue, and it won't be a problem."

Tensions between the central government and the Okinawa Prefectural Government grew once Onaga, who opposed the government's plans for the construction of the U.S. base in Henoko, won the gubernatorial race in November 2014. In October 2015, Onaga nullified approval given by his predecessor, then Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, for the central government to carry out land reclamation work off the coast of Henoko. This led to a battle in the courts, with the central government filing a lawsuit for execution by proxy. Ultimately, in December 2016, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the national government, declaring that Onaga's move was illegal.

On July 27, Gov. Onaga announced that he would be retracting approval for the land reclamation work citing, among other things, insufficient environmental conservation measures. The Okinawa Prefectural Government held a hearing on Aug. 9 with the Okinawa Defense Bureau, which is tasked with the landfill work, to give the bureau a chance to provide a rebuttal to the prefectural government's claims. If the prefectural government officially decides to retract approval for the landfill work after the hearing, the central government is poised to take legal action asking for an injunction to nullify the approval retraction.

"Mr. Onaga had been adamant about it, so the Okinawa Prefectural Government will probably retract the approval," a central government source said on Aug. 8.

Tokyo does not intend to concede, even if another legal battle ensues, planning to use the previous Supreme Court decision as backup when the time comes. The possibility that actual reclamation work will be delayed still remains, but the government is certain that the construction of the military base at Henoko will proceed regardless.

However, with the gubernatorial race previously planned for November now looking like it will take place in September, when and how reclamation work is carried out now has the chance of affecting the election.

(Japanese original by Nozomu Takeuchi and Shu Furukawa, Political News Department)

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