BY JULIAN RYALL
TOKYO —The serving mayor of the Okinawan town of Nago was re-elected on Jan. 23, a result that has been welcomed by the Japanese government and is expected to smooth the way for the completion of work on the U.S. Marine Corps facilities at Camp Schwab.
That, in turn, will hasten the closure of the Marine base at Futenma and the long-awaited relocation of U.S. military personnel to other parts of the Asia-Pacific region, including Guam.
Taketoyo Toguchi won 19,524 votes in the Nago mayoral election, defeating Yohei Kishimoto, whose campaign focused on opposition to the enlargement of Camp Schwab. Supported by a number of opposition parties, Kishimoto earned 14,439 votes.
Toguchi largely steered clear of the controversial issue of the base and instead vowed to aid local people with children — including providing free school lunches, free day care facilities and free medical care. Those promises were made in conjunction with the support of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Tokyo and tapped into the concerns of local people about social welfare support at a time of increased pressures brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Tokyo has in the past withdrawn financial aid for local authorities that refuse to support its policies and it appears there were fears among residents that the financial support that many in Japan’s poorest prefecture rely upon might again be cut.
Turnout for the election was a record low 68.32%, down from nearly 77% in the last election four years ago, reflecting the sense that some local people have effectively given up their campaign against the U.S. base.
During the campaign, Kishimoto condemned his rival for refusing to discuss the matter of the base, accusing the sitting mayor of “abandoning his responsibility as mayor.” He added that the economic aid plans Toguchi outlined could be implemented without the assistance of the central government. Opponents of the transfer of the troops and equipment from Futenma Air Station have also accused the U.S/ military of contributing to the spread of the coronavirus in the prefecture by not doing enough to control the off-base activities of troops.
Okinawa has been one of the hardest-hit regions of Japan in the present surge in cases, the sixth since the disease was first detected in Japan in February 2020. Health authorities reported 1,073 new cases on Jan. 28, down from the peak of 1,829 cases on Jan. 15, but still significantly above the high point of the fifth surge in cases, when 768 additional infections were reported on Aug. 19.
Tokyo has been quick to acclaim Toguchi’s victory, with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida unveiling a new plan to ensure economic growth across the north of Okinawa the day after the election. There was no mention of the base issue linked to the additional financial support, but Kishida will have been delighted at the outcome.
Work has been under way in Oura Bay, off the existing facilities of Camp Schwab, to reclaim 160 hectares of land and construct a pair of runways in a V configuration. The project has been consistently contentious, with residents expressing their opposition, supported by the prefectural authorities and environmental groups. A series of legal cases have been brought, in an effort to protect the flora and fauna of the bay, notably the critically endangered dugong and coral colonies.
All the legal challenges failed and reclamation work for the runways was making good progress until late 2019, when new engineering tests discovered that the seabed at the northern end of the planned runways is “as soft as mayonnaise” and will require far more expensive work to make it safe.
Some estimates put the duration of the work at an additional four years and the cost at Y2.55 trillion ($23.56 billion), up from the original estimate of Y350 billion ($3.23 billion). Quoting government sources, the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper has reported that most of the work will in fact take 10 years to complete and that the price tag may triple to Y900 billion ($8.21 billion).
The plan to move the U.S. troops from Futenma to an alternative site was first agreed in 1996 and the work was expected to be completed within five to seven years. The various challenges have put that schedule back but with the new mayor in charge for the next five years, it seems that the project can now go ahead.
When completed, the expanded facility will be the primary facility of the Marine Corps in Okinawa, with thousands of troops and their dependents being transferred to Guam, South Korea or northern Australia as part of a broader realignment in the region. mbj