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US base transfer issue the focus of election for Okinawa governor

NAHA -- The campaigning period for the Sept. 30 Okinawa gubernatorial election officially kicked off on Sept. 13, with candidates backed by camps both for and against the controversial plan to relocate a U.S. Marine base within the prefecture among the four who filed their candidacies for the race on day one.

The election date was moved up by nearly two months from the original schedule after Gov. Takeshi Onaga died on Aug. 8. Former Ginowan Mayor Atsushi Sakima, 54, an independent backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration in favor of the base relocation within Okinawa, and former House of Representatives member Denny Tamaki, 58, who aspires to carry on the work of Onaga's anti-relocation policy, as well as two other individuals threw their hats in the ring for the race.

The election looks to be a de facto two-way battle between Sakima and Tamaki with the transfer of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the prefectural city of Ginowan to the Henoko district of the city of Nago, also in Okinawa, becoming the focal point of contention. The outcome of the race will inevitably impact the fate of the Henoko relocation project.

In the five preceding gubernatorial elections called after the governments of Japan and the United States agreed in 1996 on the latter's reversion of the Futenma air base to Japan, the relocation of the facility emerged as the major focus of the polls. Although Onaga swept to victory in the previous 2014 gubernatorial contest, the Abe government refused to review the relocation plan, insisting that moving the Futenma base to Henoko was the only solution.

The central government accordingly began to build seawalls just off the coast of Henoko in April 2017 in preparation for landfill work to construct a new base to replace the Futenma air station. But just as the government was ready to inject soil for land reclamation work for the project, the Okinawa Prefectural Government retracted a former governor's approval for the landfill work on Aug. 31 this year, forcing the construction work to be suspended.

Sakima is backed by the Okinawa prefectural chapter of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which leads the ruling coalition in the National Diet, as well as by the LDP's junior coalition partner Komeito. Although the prefectural chapter of Komeito is against the base transfer to Henoko and allowed its members to decide whom to vote for in the previous gubernatorial contest, the party ended up endorsing Sakima this election.

At a ceremony held in Naha on Sept. 13, Sakima emphasized before senior officials of the governing parties his experience of having served two terms as mayor of Ginowan, home to the Futenma airfield.

"I will never give up. I'm the only candidate who can bring about the reversion of the Futenma air station," he said. However, he did not say anything about whether he is for or against the Henoko relocation, and stressed, "Nothing will come about from antagonism or division. Politics is about negotiations. I will convey the feelings of the Okinawan people (to the central government) through dialogue."

Tamaki, a former lower house member of the Liberal Party, meanwhile, is not running on the ticket of any particular party in the governor's race, but is backed by the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party, both of which are ruling parties in the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly, as well as local companies and organizations that are opposed to building a replacement facility in Henoko. The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan is also rallying behind Tamaki, giving a boost to the move to reassemble the "All Okinawa" alliance that swept Onaga to power in the last governor's race through a coalition of liberal and some conservative political forces in the southernmost prefecture.

"I would like to carry on Mr. Onaga's work and prevent a new base from being built in Henoko," Tamaki said Sept. 13 on Ie Island in northern Okinawa Prefecture, where his mother was born. "Instead of relying on the central government, let us Okinawans build a proud, flourishing society, and put our identities before ideologies," he said.

In addition to the two candidates, Hatsumi Toguchi, 83, a researcher on traditional Ryukyu cuisine, and former IT company worker Shun Kaneshima, 40, also filed their candidacies.

As of Sept. 12, the number of voters in Okinawa Prefecture stood at 1,158,569.

(Japanese original by Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau; and Ken Nakazato, Kumamoto Bureau)

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