U.S. Bases Not on Okinawa Ballot But Certainly on Voters Minds

Date: 11-16-2006

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HONOLULU (Nov. 16) – Results of Sunday’s elections in Okinawa will be as closely watched in Washington and Tokyo as they are in Naha, the capital of Japan’s southernmost prefecture.

Sheila A. Smith, a research fellow at the East-West Center and a specialist on Japanese political and security matters, says “This will prove to be a decisive campaign with impact that will last for decades in Okinawa. The results will reveal a lot about the interests at stake there surrounding the U.S. bases.”

And those bases, accounting for the largest amount of land and the bulk of U.S. troops in Japan, have been a contentious issue in Okinawa since the island reverted to Japanese rule in 1972 after 27 years of U.S. postwar occupation.

Last year an agreement was reached between the Japanese and U.S. governments that reflected a long process of rethinking the deployments of U.S. forces in Japan. A key issue for the two governments was the need to reduce and consolidate U.S. forces in Okinawa. The realignment plan envisions some 8,000 U.S. Marines and their dependents in Okinawa moving to Guam, freeing considerable land currently used by U.S. forces for use by Okinawans. Still controversial, however, is the fate of Futenma Marine Corps Air Station in Ginowan City, a densely populated municipality in central Okinawa. The U.S. and Japanese governments continue to hold fast to the idea of building a replacement facility for the Marines in the northern city of Nago, an idea that has been strongly opposed by numerous groups in Okinawa.

Sunday’s election, therefore, will reveal the extent to which Okinawa’s residents are willing to support the U.S.-Japan realignment plan, and the outcome will determine the pace and the scale of progress in the effort to transform U.S. forces on the small island.

The two leading gubernatorial hopefuls are split on the bases issue. Hirokazu Nakaima, a former central government bureaucrat who is backed by the ruling coalition in Tokyo, is willing to support, even if somewhat reluctantly, relocation of the Futenma air station within the prefecture. His challenger, Keiko Itokazu, a former Upper House member of the Japanese Diet (parliament) and a former guide for educational “peace tours” organized to educate mainland Japanese about the devastation of Okinawa during World War II, is supported by a large number of those who want to reject the Japanese government idea of constructing a new base to relocate the U.S. Marines from Futenma. A third candidate, who is seen as a long shot in the race, is Chosuke Yara, who advocates a more provocative option for Okinawans -- independence from Japan.

The East-West Center’s Smith says the battle lines in Sunday’s elections are reminiscent of divisions seen within the prefecture in the past. “The fundamental difference between the candidates really does lie in their approaches to reducing the concentration of U.S. forces in Okinawa. While Nakaima believes that Okinawa can and should negotiate with Tokyo for a better deal on the newly approved plan for Futenma relocation, Itokazu insists that the Japanese government should provide bases for the U.S. outside the prefecture.” The seeming inability of the national government to address satisfactorily the social concerns that arise locally as a result of the U.S. presence creates the division between those who benefit economically from the U.S. military presence (including business and landowning interests) and those who do not. Currently, the unemployment rate in Okinawa is 7.6 percent -- the highest of all of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

In her study Shifting Terrain: The Domestic Politics of the U.S. Military Presence in Asia, published earlier this year, Smith points out that for years Tokyo has run roughshod over the island prefecture. She adds that in the mid-1990s then-Governor Masahide Ota took his case all the way to Japan’s Supreme Court arguing unsuccessfully that “the national government was placing a disproportionate burden on the residents of Okinawa for the maintenance of the U.S.-Japan security treaty.”

Even with a new plan for realigning U.S. forces in Japan concluded just last year, the debate surrounding this year’s gubernatorial election suggests that not much has changed since Ota lost his case.

Smith notes, “The argument continues to be that Okinawa bears a disproportionate share of the burden for Japan’s security choices, and this is the theme Itokazu continues to raise in her campaign.” And she adds the former parliamentarian has “generated considerable excitement among Okinawans … Politics in Okinawa are like politics everywhere – people elect those they trust, those they think can change policy, and those with energy. Itokazu certainly reflects a new energy in local politics, but we shall have to see whether Okinawa’s voters are willing to trust her with negotiating their future with Tokyo.”

Press reports in the Japanese capital indicate that the government of new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is concerned. At a time when North Korea’s potential threat to Japan is widely perceived by most Japanese to have increased, there may be less latitude for Okinawa’s new governor – whomever that will be – to negotiate with the national government. The central government may, in fact, be ready to take a more contentious approach to imposing its policy priorities on Japan’s southernmost prefecture.

Smith says voter turnout will be key.

“The realignment agreement between the United States and Japan has been carefully laid out and the terms agreed upon,” Smith notes. “If the majority of Okinawans have trouble with the terms agreed to by Tokyo and Washington, you should expect to see high turnout for Itokazu.” Likewise, if the realignment plan satisfies most Okinawans that they have the best deal possible for managing the U.S. bases, then Nakaima will be the majority choice. But, she adds, “election results could also be difficult to read. A low voter turnout could suggest disengagement with the electoral process, and this opens the possibility of more activism and protest. Moreover, if we have a winner with a small margin of victory, then these deep divisions over the U.S. bases will continue to affect policymaking in Okinawa, and will complicate the implementation of the current realignment plan.”

Sunday’s election in Okinawa is about more than just choosing a new governor. This vote will set the tone for the next decade of relations between Okinawa and Tokyo, and will fundamentally shape the ability of the U.S. and Japanese governments to implement their plan to realign the balance of military forces in the U.S.-Japan alliance.


Sheila A. Smith is a research fellow in Politics, Governance, and Security in the East-West Center Research Program. Smith’s academic affiliations include associate in research of the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard University. She has conducted extensive field work in Tokyo at the University of Tokyo and in Okinawa at the University of the Ryukyus, and has had research fellowships at the Japan Institute for International Affairs and the Research Institute for Peace and Security. Smith earned a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University. Dr. Smith may be reached at (808) 944-7427 or via email at SmithS@EastWestCenter.org

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