A candidate opposing the controversial relocation of a U.S. military base within Okinawa Prefecture was elected to the House of Representatives in a by-election in the southernmost prefecture on April 21. The outcome has clarified that the national government's strategy of forcibly proceeding with reclamation work to convince local residents that the project is a done deal, thereby creating a sense of helplessness among local residents, is unacceptable.
The by-election in the Okinawa No. 3 constituency was called to fill the seat vacated by Denny Tamaki, who stepped down to run in the Okinawa gubernatorial election last autumn. The electoral district is situated in the northern part of Okinawa's main island that includes Nago, to which the government is aiming to relocate the U.S. base.
Tomohiro Yara, an opponent of the base relocation backed by most liberal opposition parties, defeated Aiko Shimajiri, who ran on the ticket of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), by a landslide in the by-election held simultaneously with the second round of nationwide local elections. Gov. Tamaki, who beat his then-LDP opponents in the 2014 and 2017 lower house elections, is also an opponent of the base relocation within the prefecture. Yara's victory thus means the anti-base relocation forces successfully kept their seat.
Over the past six or so months, Okinawa residents rejected the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma base in the city of Ginowan to the Henoko district of Nago on three occasions: the September 2018 gubernatorial election, a February 2019 prefectural referendum and the latest by-election.
In other words, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suffered three consecutive defeats after moving ahead with the relocation project in defiance of local public opinion.
Just like in the gubernatorial election, a candidate supported by the "All Okinawa" political forces, comprising most key opposition parties, clashed head-on with a candidate the LDP fielded with the backing of its coalition partner Komeito and the conservative opposition Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) in the by-election.
During campaigning for the gubernatorial race, the conservative alliance's strategy of not mentioning the base relocation issue was criticized as an attempt to hide the key point of contention. As part of the strategy, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga emphasized that various issues, ranging from the economy to social welfare, were points of contention.
In the latest election, Shimajiri made it a point to mention her support for the relocation project during her campaign and lost the race. It is no longer permissible to obscure the significance of the election outcome or to conclude that the results are due to circumstances unique to Okinawa.
Despite her high profile, Shimajiri, who had served two six-year terms as a House of Councillors' member and had been a minister for Okinawa and Northern Territories affairs, suffered a crushing defeat. If the Abe government refuses to take this outcome seriously, it would mean elections, which are part of the democratic process, are meaningless.
There are those within the LDP who do not regard the party's defeat in the Okinawa by-election as a big deal, saying it had been predicted. This is because the LDP has continued to win Diet elections on a nationwide scale -- with the exception of Okinawa Prefecture, where it has suffered defeat after defeat -- since the second Abe administration was launched in December 2012.
However, hasn't this given rise to a twisted view within the LDP that the governing bloc can disrespect Okinawa's public opinion as long as government administration sees no repercussions?
The legitimacy of the government derives from the people and the legitimacy of the government's exercise of its power is checked via elections. The Abe administration should immediately discontinue the reclamation work off Henoko and squarely face public opinion in Okinawa.