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Pledge to follow late governor, resist base move propelled Tamaki to Okinawa election win

Denny Tamaki, front center, performs a festive Okinawa folk dance called "kachaashii" after being assured of victory in the Okinawa gubernatorial election, on the evening of Sept. 30, 2018, in Naha. (Mainichi/Noriko Tokuno)

A pledge to follow in the footsteps of late Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga and strongly resist the construction of a replacement U.S. military base in Okinawa Prefecture played an instrumental part in Denny Tamaki's victory in the Okinawa gubernatorial election on Sept. 30.

The 58-year-old Tamaki campaigned on a platform of opposing relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the Okinawa Prefecture city of Ginowan to the Henoko district of the city of Nago, also in the southernmost prefecture. This stance lifted him over rival Atsushi Sakima, 54, backed by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which is pushing to relocate the base to the area.

"The will of Gov. Onaga, who staked his life on not allowing the creation of a new base, lives in the residents of this prefecture and propelled me forward," Tamaki said. "Inheriting the foundations from Gov. Onaga, I want to promise to him that I will move forward with prefectural residents, full of hope. Let's go forward and together create an Okinawa with true heart."

Throughout his campaign, Tamaki managed to pull together the "All-Okinawa" alliance of progressives and conservatives sharing opposition to the Futenma base relocation, which had started to become unstitched. On the morning of Oct. 1, residents against the new Henoko base gathered at the gate of the U.S. Marines' Camp Schwab in the area, where relocation-related construction is proceeding, and cheered Tamaki's victory. Holding up a banner reading "NO BASE," they expressed renewed opposition to the relocation.

Hiroji Yamashiro, head of the Okinawa Heiwa Undou Center (Okinawa peace movement center) leading the protest, was among those celebrating the results.

"Gov. Takeshi Onaga's fierce struggle probably remained in the hearts of prefectural residents," he said. "The election was in effect a battle between Denny and the central government. Considering that the margin of victory was so wide, the government should accept the feelings of Okinawa frankly and rethink its construction of the base." Tamaki received 396,632 votes, while Sakima garnered 316,458.

Tamaki stepped forward as a candidate in the election to replace Onaga just two weeks before the gubernatorial race officially began. It had emerged that Onaga, who died suddenly on Aug. 8 at the age of 67 from pancreatic cancer, had mentioned Tamaki before he passed away.

Tamaki's real given name is Yasuhiro -- Denny being a nickname. His father, a U.S. Marine stationed in Okinawa before it was returned to Japan, went back to the U.S. before he was born, and Tamaki has never met him. Tamaki's mother worked to earn money to raise him, and he was looked after by an acquaintance of his mother's until the age of about 10. This upbringing helped form his political principles, and he has called for the creation of "a society that does not leave anyone behind."

While campaigning for governorship, Tamaki frequently took up slogans that Onaga had used, including phrases in the Okinawan language such as "Maketeenai birando" (We must not lose)."

In the final stages of Tamaki's campaign, Onaga's 62-year-old wife Mikiko took the podium at gatherings, and backed him over Sakima. "I don't want to hand over Okinawa, which (my husband) tried to protect with his life, to a person who won't even move one millimeter toward the hearts of prefectural residents," she said.

Atsushi Sakima is interviewed after being informed that his rival Denny Tamaki was set to win the Okinawa gubernatorial election, in the prefectural capital Naha, on the evening of Sept. 30, 2018. (Mainichi/Toyokazu Tsumura)

Sakima bowed deeply to his supporters on Sept. 30 after his defeat became certain, saying it was unfortunate that his assertions had not reached prefectural residents.

Sakima, a former mayor of the Okinawa Prefecture city of Ginowan who had never lost in six previous elections, had called for an early return of the Futenma base land to the Japanese government. He said that he was the "only one" who could achieve the return, and that he would negotiate with the central government. Throughout his campaign, however, he never stated whether or not he was opposed to the relocation of the Futenma base, and he was criticized for dodging a critical point of contention.

Regarding his avoidance of the relocation issue, Sakima said, "I want to analyze (the results), but I was unable to get prefectural residents to understand me."

(Japanese original by Tadashi Sano, Kenta Somatani, Keisuke Muneoka, Hiroya Miyagi, and Hiroshi Higa, Kyushu News Department)

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