Japan Correspondent

U.S. military officials and Tokyu Construction Co. representatives attended a ribbon cutting ceremony for the opening of a nearly $74 million hangar for the 1st Marine Air Wing and Carrier Air Wing at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa on Nov. 24.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -Japan District’s photo by Maj. Bobby W. Johnson

TOKYO, Japan — A long-serving mayor supported by Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party has been defeated in a local election in Okinawa, an ominous sign for the government ahead of additional votes in the prefecture and a general election that must be held before the end of the year.

Kazuyuki Zakimi won the Jan. 17 election in the city of Miyakojima by nearly 2,900 votes, defeating Toshihiko Shimoji, who was seeking a fourth term as mayor. Zakimi stood as an “All Okinawa” candidate, with the backing of a range of groups from across the political spectrum.

In his campaign, Zakimi had promised to be more responsive to the needs of local residents and said in response to an open letter from a local citizens’ organization that he would question the planned construction of a missile base for the Ground Self-Defence Force and a munitions facility on Miyakojima.

“I will demand the cancellation of construction if it cannot guarantee that residents’ lives, properties and a safe living environment cannot be protected,” he said. His opponent had declined to respond to the request for a comment.

Analysts see the vote as the first in a series of preliminary skirmishes between the ruling party in Tokyo and political organizations in Okinawa, where opposition to the heavy US military presence still runs high.

Jun Okumura, an analyst at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, said the ruling LDP and its political ally, the Komeito party, may struggle at the national level in the general election that has to be held before Oct. 22 — but even more so in Okinawa.

“It looks like Japan is headed for some structural change in its politics and that does not bode well for the LDP, especially in Okinawa,” he told the Journal.

“In years gone by, the nationalist left was very powerful but now I think it is going to become more and more uncomfortable for conservative politicians in Okinawa and they will start to choose to stand up to Tokyo,” he said.

“They have to reflect the voices of their constituents if they want to stay in power, and while I do not see a separatist movement emerging in Okinawa in the near future, I do think it will become harder to convince local people of the need for such a large U.S. military presence on the islands, and that includes the transfer of the U.S. Marines from Futenma Air Station to Camp Schwab,” he said.

That relocation project has been planned for many years but repeatedly delayed by legal and other challenges. Work has begun on reclaiming land off the existing military base at Camp Schwab, but engineers have encountered difficulties as the seabed is far softer than was believed after initial surveys.

In addition to the transfer of troops from Futenma to northern Okinawa, several thousand more members of the Marine Corps and their dependents are due to be relocated to Guam, South Korea and northern Australia as part of a broader realignment of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region.

The government’s problems in Okinawa are in addition to the broader challenges they are facing as a result of the coronavirus and the impact on the national economy.

Yoshihide Suga only took over as prime minister in September but his public support rate has been in steady decline ever since and is presently below the 40 percent threshold. If his policies do not start to have a positive impact quite soon, then the party may sustain heavy losses at the ballot boxes.

“I think Okinawa has become a larger issue on the national level than it used to be,” said Okumura. “The LDP will keep trying to move forward on the transfer to Henoko, but I can only see local resistance growing, which means that the local seats that the party has held for many years in Okinawa might have to be written off.”

If that happens and opposition to the bases does intensify, then the issue will inevitably play a far more important role in the politics of the prefecture and impact the U.S. military presence. mbj