Futenma not expected to dictate election
By David Allen and Chiyomi Sumida, Stars and Stripes
Pacific edition, Sunday, January 24, 2010
NAGO, Okinawa — People unfamiliar with this northern Okinawa city may be overstating the importance of Sunday’s mayoral election, comparing it to a referendum on moving Marine air operations to Camp Schwab.
The issue is just not that black and white, some residents and political analysts say.
More than 76 percent of the city’s 60,000 residents live on the other side of a mountain from Schwab, selected as a replacement site for Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, and they would not be affected by the noise and safety concerns opponents of the project say it would bring.
Masaaki Gabe, professor of international relations at the University of the Ryukyus, said he did not believe the election would be a clear-cut resolution to the issue.
"I don’t think Futenma weighs that heavily for voters when they choose their mayor," he said Thursday, noting that while the attention of the press and people outside the city has focused on Nago elections over the past 13 years as referendums on the base issue, voters were more focused on community economic matters.
The city has an unemployment rate of 12.5 percent, double the national average.
Still, politicians in Tokyo are watching the results closely. The defeat of the current mayor, who has reluctantly supported the plan, could strengthen the resistance of Japan’s new government to following through on the 2006 agreement that calls for building the new base and closing Futenma, located in the heart of urban Ginowan.
Mayor Yoshikazu Shimabukuro, 63, is fighting for his political life against challenger Susumu Inamine, 64, who has made opposition to the relocation one of the key planks to his platform.
"I promise not to allow construction of a new base in the sea of Henoko," Inamine said Thursday at a rally. He is supported by the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and its coalition partners.
While his opponent is focusing on the base issue, Shimabukuro is downplaying its importance.
"Futenma is clearly a national defense issue, for which the national government should be responsible," campaign spokesman Ichiro Miyagi said Thursday. "People here are tired of [outsiders] highlighting an issue that was clearly not their focus."
On that even Shimabukuro’s opponents can agree.
"It’s time to bring to an end to the Futenma issue so that people in Nago can be relieved from the long spell that painfully divided this city," said Yoshitami Oshiro, a campaign manager for Inamine and a city assembly member.
The DPJ-led government has decided to review the 2006 relocation agreement, setting May as a deadline for deciding whether to continue with the Camp Schwab plan or press for an alternate location outside Okinawa.
However, although local newspaper polls over the past decade have shown a majority of residents oppose the project, they have elected pro-relocation mayors.
The controversy has divided this city for so long that some residents interviewed by Stars and Stripes asked not to be identified.
"My biggest concern is how to revive our city," said a 44-year-old restaurant owner in downtown Nago, who asked to remain anonymous. "I don’t care one way or another about the Futenma issue. Working for the education of our children, the welfare of city residents and promotion of the local economy are what I expect of our mayor.