U.S. base opponent wins Okinawa governor race

Newly-elected Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki. Kyodo News photo

NAHA, Japan — Antibase candidate Denny Tamaki, a former opposition lawmaker, won the Okinawa gubernatorial election Sept. 30 in a major setback for the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which has been pushing forward with the contentious relocation of a U.S. military facility within the southern prefecture.

Tamaki, a 58-year-old radio personality-turned-politician, garnered a record-high 396,632 votes, beating former Ginowan mayor Atsushi Sakima, 54, who was supported by the ruling coalition and won 316,458 votes, and two other candidates.

“I will firmly convey the Okinawa people’s will (to oppose the base transfer) to the central government and make requests accordingly,” Tamaki told reporters in Naha after the election results came out.

He said he “definitely supports” the prefecture’s withdrawal in August of approval for landfill work necessary for the U.S. base transfer, halting construction of a new base.

Tamaki and Sakima were vying for leadership of the prefecture following the death of the previous governor, Takeshi Onaga, of cancer in early August. Onaga was a staunch opponent of the Japan-U.S. plan to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from a crowded residential area of Ginowan to the less populated coastal district of Henoko in Nago, both in Okinawa.

Voter turnout was 63.24 percent, down 0.89 point from the previous election.

“Mr. Onaga staked his life on achieving the mission of building no more bases (in Okinawa). His wish was shared by people in the prefecture and led to my victory,” said Tamaki, who claimed to have been designated by Onaga as his successor. Onaga’s son Takeharu, a Naha city assembly member, backed him.

The Futenma relocation, first agreed on in 1996, has been a sensitive issue in Okinawa, which was under U.S. control between 1945 and 1972 following Japan’s defeat in World War II. The prefecture hosts the bulk of U.S. military installations in Japan and many locals want the Futenma base moved outside of the prefecture.

Sakima told around 80 supporters at a Naha hotel, “My pledge to make it a top priority to improve the livelihood of Okinawan people didn’t quite get through.”

During the campaign, both Tamaki and Sakima called for the prompt closure of the Futenma base and the return of the site to Japan, citing safety concerns. But the former mayor did not clarify his stance on its relocation, drawing criticism from some voters.

Abe told his party’s election strategy head, Ryu Shionoya, during a telephone conversation he was “disappointed” but that the result “could not be helped,” according to Shionoya.

“We will look at this judgement made by the people of Okinawa sincerely, analyze why we lost and make efforts to meet (Okinawa residents’) expectations,” said Toshihiro Nikai, secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

In Washington, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said, “We congratulate Denny Tamaki on his election as governor of Okinawa and look forward to working with him.”

“The United States deeply values the contributions made by Okinawa to the U.S.-Japan alliance and our two nations’ mutual security,” the spokesperson told Kyodo News.

Tamaki, whose father was a member of the U.S. military whom he never met, served as a House of Representatives member for the opposition Liberal Party. He was backed by four other opposition parties and a parliamentary group in the race.

Sakima received support from the LDP led by Abe and its junior coalition partner, Komeito, with the opposition Japan Innovation Party also behind him.

The other candidates in the gubernatorial race were Hatsumi Toguchi, an 83-year-old former Naha city assembly member and expert on local cuisine, and 40-year-old Shun Kaneshima, a former internet technology firm employee who runs a restaurant.

The base construction has been put on hold since the prefectural government retracted the landfill work approval in line with Onaga’s instructions in July, claiming illegality in the application process.

The local and central governments are expected to fight a legal battle over the resumption of the work.

Meanwhile, former Deputy Ginowan Mayor Masanori Matsugawa, 65, won in the mayoral election held the same day to pick a successor to Sakima, defeating company executive Harumasa Nakanishi, the 57-year-old former head of a union of Okinawa high school parent-teacher associations.

Nakanishi, tapped by local members of the opposition Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party, had expressed opposition to the base relocation plan within Okinawa, while Matsugawa, backed by the LDP-led coalition, did not clarify his stance. In early September, candidates opposed to the base relocation plan secured a majority in the Nago city assembly election.

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