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As I See It: National gov't needs to listen to Okinawans over US base relocation

Supporters cheer Denny Tamaki after it became certain he would win the Okinawa gubernatorial election, in the prefectural capital of Naha on Sept. 30, 2018. (Mainichi/Noriko Tokuno)

Denny Tamaki, a former member of the House of Representatives opposing the controversial relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa Prefecture, won the Sept. 30 Okinawa gubernatorial election in which the pros and cons of the base relocation were the key points of contention.

Tamaki, 58, who calls himself the successor of the late former Gov. Takeshi Onaga who opposed the relocation of the base from the city of Ginowan to the Henoko district of Nago, defeated Atsushi Sakima, 54, former mayor of Ginowan backed by the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The fact that Tamaki scored an unexpected landslide victory by garnering some 80,000 more votes than his opponent highlights Okinawa residents' anger at the central government, which went ahead with the reclamation work off Henoko in preparation for the construction of a new base while making light of public opinion in the prefecture.

The Abe administration should take seriously the will of Okinawa residents expressed in the election and review the base relocation plan.

During his campaigning, Tamaki visited various areas of the southernmost prefecture and delivered stump speeches. However, his campaign speeches often did not attract many people.

Only about 30 people gathered in central Nago, in the northern part of Okinawa's main island, when he delivered a stump speech. Nevertheless, Tamaki spoke passionately.

"I, Denny Tamaki, promise never to waver. I'll block the construction of a new base in Henoko by all means. I don't have a sense of despair. I always smile. Whatever happens, I sing. Without a smile, you can't create a bright future," he said. A 48-year-old man who went to the area to listen to Tamaki's speech shed tears.

In the Nago mayoral race in February, the incumbent opposing the base relocation to the city was defeated by a candidate who secured all-out support from the Abe government.

"If we lost this (gubernatorial) election, people outside the prefecture and overseas would view our loss as the result of Okinawa residents giving in to (the central government) in return for money. It's a turning point that will determine the future of Okinawa," the 48-year-old man said.

Onaga, who passed away in August of pancreatic cancer, won the 2014 gubernatorial race by a margin of some 100,000 votes. Since then, however, prefectural residents have been frustrated with their opinions being ignored.

Instead of respecting the opinions of an overwhelming majority of Okinawans, the national government defeated Onaga in repeated legal battles and began the construction of seawalls off Henoko, paving the way for work to pour soil into the area.

A spate of accidents and incidents involving U.S. forces in Okinawa has occurred in the prefecture. In 2016, a former U.S. serviceman who was then working as a civilian employee of U.S. forces killed a 20-year-old woman. Meanwhile, a window weighing about 8 kilograms fell off a U.S. military aircraft midflight that was stationed at the Futenma base in December 2017.

Local residents expressed fears of further accidents and incidents involving U.S. military personnel, and the prefectural government demanded through the central government that U.S. military flights in the prefecture be halted whenever an accident occurred. U.S. forces often complied but soon resumed flights.

"Questions should be raised over the central government's capacity to address the issue," Onaga said, but his words were in vain.

The national government kept intensifying pressure on Onaga, who hung tough in his opposition to the Futenma base relocation within the prefecture. The central government decreased funds it allocated for the revitalization of Okinawa's economy after Onaga took office even though such budget appropriations are not supposed to be linked to the base issue.

On the other hand, the central government resumed subsidies for the realignment of U.S. bases to the Nago Municipal Government on the assumption that the city will cooperate with the national government after the Abe administration-backed candidate beat the incumbent opposing the Futenma base relocation in the mayoral race.

"We never benefit from confronting the central government," said a local voter who was listening to Sakima's stump speech. This view was shared by many of those backing Tamaki's rival in the gubernatorial race.

"I'm not convinced by the relocation of the base to Henoko. But even if we oppose the move, it won't be accepted. Our livelihoods haven't improved. Local residents are tired of the situation," said a 51-year-old business operator in Nago.

Although the national government that backed Sakima was trying to split Okinawa residents, Sakima called for "dialogue instead of conflict," and emphasized that he would increase prefectural residents' incomes and revitalize the local economy without mentioning whether he supported the relocation of the Futenma base to Henoko.

However, the outcome of the election shows that the Abe government and Sakima misjudged local residents' feelings. The ruling bloc sent the Liberal Democratic Party's then Chief Deputy Secretary-General Shinjiro Koizumi, a popular politician, and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike to Okinawa during the campaigning to demonstrate the government's all-out support for Sakima. However, local voters reacted coolly to the move.

"Mr. Koizumi and Ms. Koike won't govern Okinawa. Frankly speaking, I think we're being made a fool of," said a 33-year-old housewife living in the prefectural capital of Naha. She then went to a large-scale rally organized by Tamaki in the city.

During the rally in the rain, a recorded speech of Onaga, saying, "Okinawans, don't give up" in the Okinawa dialect, was played, and the crowd gave a standing ovation. This appears to have reflected the feelings of Okinawa residents.

In three and a half years, Okinawa will commemorate the half-century anniversary of the return of Okinawa from postwar U.S. occupation to Japan's sovereignty under the governorship of Tamaki, who took office on Oct. 4.

Views had persisted among residents of the southernmost prefecture that Okinawa was left behind Japan's modernization as it was under U.S. rule for 27 years until its reversion to Japan in 1972. However, the success of singer Namie Amuro, who retired in September, and other celebrities from Okinawa have given many prefectural residents self-confidence.

That Tamaki's appeal for the creation of an independent local economy that does not rely on national government subsidies won sympathy from numerous voters reflects changes in local residents' awareness of their home prefecture.

Still, the heavy burden of U.S. bases on Okinawa has remained unchanged over the past 73 years following the end of the war. Roughly 70 percent of total land area exclusively used by U.S. military facilities in Japan lies in Okinawa Prefecture even today.

In an interview following his election victory, Tamaki said, "We'll urge the central government to hold consultations aimed at reviewing the base relocation plan instead of a legal battle." In other words, Tamaki called for "dialogue," which the Abe government appealed for during campaigning for the gubernatorial election.

One wonders how the central government and residents of mainland Japan will respond to the opinions of Okinawa residents.

"Without a smile, you can't create a bright future," Tamaki said during his campaigning. The central government and mainland Japan should no longer disappoint Okinawa people.

(Japanese original by Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau)

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