Okinawa squares up to Tokyo over US base row

Updated: 2016-01-19 13:12


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Okinawa squares up to Tokyo over US base row

Coral reefs are seen along the coast near the US Marine base Camp Schwab, off the tiny hamlet of Henoko in Nago on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, in this aerial photo taken by Kyodo October 29, 2015.[Photo/Agencies]

TOKYO -- Official campaigning for the mayoral election in Ginowan, the host city of a controversial US military base, is heating up in Japan's southernmost prefecture of Okinawa with the relocation of the base central to the elections, local media reported Tuesday.

Campaigning began on Sunday and is shaping up to be a fierce contest between incumbent Atsushi Sakima, 51, hoping to secure his second four-year term, and Keiichiro Shimura, a 63-year-old former prefectural government employee.

The two independent politicians, the only candidates vying for the mayoral position in the election, which will take place on Jan. 24, have contrasting views on the central government's contentious plans to relocate the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Ginowan to the coastal Henoko district of Nago.

Shimura is backed by Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga, himself a staunch advocate of relocating the base outside the prefecture and is currently locked in an escalating legal battle with the central government over the issue.

He is, along with being supported by the ruling parties of the Okinawa prefectural assembly, comprising the Social Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party, also backed by a significant number of local assembly members.

With the support of the governor and assembly members, along with vociferous civic groups and individuals, Shimura has pledged to close the Futenma base, home to some 3,000 US Marines and serving US forces since the bloody Battle of Okinawa in 1945, and return the land to Okinawa.

Sakima, for his part, has the backing of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior Komeito party ally.

While not specifically referencing the government's plans to relocate the base within the prefecture, a move strongly opposed by the local citizens who feel they have suffered immeasurably having been forced to host the majority of Japan's US bases on their their island for decades, holds the base's relocation as central to his campaign.

According to local media reports, the LDP-backed candidate said he will replace the Futenma base with a Disney resort, with Abe hoping a victory for his contender will speed up the impasse between the regional and central government and derail Onaga's tireless efforts to block the relocation plans.

The ongoing base relocation deadlock has irked the United States, as the Japanese government continues to try and appease its ally by giving its assurances that the relocation and construction of the new base will go ahead as per a previous bilateral agreement between the two countries.

However, Washington, as has been the case in the past under previous administrations, could become increasingly vexed with Tokyo over the issue, as polls have shown that Abe has failed to sufficiently explain to, and gain the support of Onaga, as well as the people of Okinawa, the central government's true stance on the base's relocation, despite intensive talks being held between both parties on the issue.

Abe, whose public popularity plummeted following his forcing of unconstitutional war bills into law in a bid to expand the nation's military scope, has said that the building of a new base, partly on reclaimed land from the waters of Oura Bay in Henoko, remains the only solution for the relocation of the Futenma base.

But Onaga, and Shimura of late, have repeatedly said that the plans are unacceptable and that the government is overly fixated on the base's relocation to the coastal Henoko region as being the only solution and should be more empathetic to the base hosting burdens of the Okinawa people.

In 1996 the Japanese and US governments inked an accord to close down the Futenma base and return land occupied by the facility to Okinawa, with the transfer of the base's functions aimed partly at reducing the burden on Okinawa and its people.

The majority of Japanese people, polls have shown, including those on the mainland and on Okinawa island, believe Abe and his administration are mishandling the base relocation issue, with the generality in Japan's southernmost prefecture wanting the new base relocated off the island at a bare minimum, and out of Japan if possible.

Okinawans have consistently called on both prefectural and central governments to see their base-hosting burdens lifted, amid instances of numerous military-related accidents, such as the August 2004 incident of a Marine CH-53D Sea Stallion heavy assault transport helicopter crashing into the Okinawa International University in Ginowan.