Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Local Vote Could Decide Japan Base Issue

Local Vote Could Decide Japan Base Issue

Published: January 22, 2010

TOKYO — Few Americans have ever heard of Yoshikazu Shimabukuro or Susumu Inamine, or even the tiny Okinawan city of Nago where the two men are candidates in a heated race for mayor.

But this seemingly minor election could, in an indirect way, have major consequences for the United States’ ties with Japan, its most important Asian ally. Depending on the outcome, political experts say, the vote on Sunday could fuel a widening diplomatic rift with Japan, and possibly even add to pressure to reduce the 50,000 American military personnel now stationed there.

Nago is where the United States and Japan agreed four years ago to relocate a busy Marine helicopter base in a controversial deal that took a decade to complete — largely because it was so hard to find a community that was willing to accept the Americans.

Now Nago, a city of 60,000, may be about to reconsider its acceptance of the base, with its runways built on landfill in pristine turquoise waters near Henoko, a sleepy fishing village administered by Nago. The question of whether to reject the 2006 deal has emerged as the dominant issue in Sunday’s vote, which pits the pro-base incumbent, Mr. Shimabukuro, 63, against Mr. Inamine, 64, the chairman of the city’s education board, who opposes the base.

In Tokyo, the election is being closely watched as a crucial referendum on the 2006 deal that could sway the new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, who has yet to state clearly whether he supports or opposes the plan. Mr. Hatoyama has raised the ire of the Obama administration by putting the relocation agreement on hold until May, when he will decide whether to support it, or name a new site for the base.

Mr. Hatoyama is caught between the demands from Washington that he honor the agreement and domestic pressure to make good on his campaign promises to review the deal. But Mr. Hatoyama has said he will heed voters on Okinawa, who overwhelmingly backed his party in last summer’s historic national election, which ended the half-century rule of the Liberal Democrats, and Sunday’s election in Nago is widely seen as an important barometer of public opinion on the island.

An equally large problem, say political experts, is the fact that Nago was the only community that Tokyo could convince to take the base, the sprawling United States Marine Air Station Futenma, now located in the middle of Okinawa’s crowded Ginowan city. Losing Nago as an option leaves few realistic alternatives, say analysts. These could include merging the Marine base into a nearby Air Force base, or moving them off of Okinawa altogether, most likely to Guam — both options that have been resisted by Washington.

“If Mr. Inamine wins, it becomes very hard to do the current plan,” said Takashi Kawakami, a professor specializing in security issues at Tokyo’s Takushoku University. “It will feed calls for moving the base out of Okinawa or out of Japan.”

In Nago, current popular acceptance of the base stands on a fragile consensus that it will bring much needed jobs and investment. But last summer’s election victory by Mr. Hatoyama’s Democrats stirred up hopes for a reduction in the military burden for Okinawa, the southern island where many of the American military personnel in Japan are located.

A group of antiwar and environmental protesters has erected a large tent on the beach at Henoko to stage a permanent sit-in against the planned base, which they say would destroy one of the last habitats of the endangered dugong, a large sea mammal related to the manatee.

These sentiments have helped give Mr. Inamine, the anti-base challenger, a slight lead in recent polls by local newspapers. Another factor, revealed in interviews late last year with Nago residents, is a growing feeling of irritation with the constant delays in construction, and the stress this has caused their community.

“The base has divided our community, and even families have been split,” said Shoji Gishitomi, 35, a fisherman in Henoko. “We want to get this past us, one way or the other.”

Indeed, political experts and local residents agree that Mr. Hatoyama’s decision to delay a decision on the base, made out of an apparent desire to find a solution to please both Washington and Okinawa, may only end up angering both.

“The United States doesn’t know if it can trust Hatoyama or not,” said Hiroshi Ashitomi, one of the protesters staging the sit-in at Henoko, “and neither do we Okinawans.”

No comments: