Japan governor race may strain U.S. alliance

Yoichi Iha, one of two candidates in a tight race for governor, wants Futenma Air Station out of Japan. A recent poll shows that 84 percent of Okinawans oppose plans to relocate the U.S. base further north.
Yoichi Iha, one of two candidates in a tight race for governor, wants Futenma Air Station out of Japan. A recent poll shows that 84 percent of Okinawans oppose plans to relocate the U.S. base further north. (Chico Harlan)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 20, 2010; 8:02 PM

NAHA, JAPAN - Disrupted last year and restored this summer, the cohesion in the U.S.-Japan alliance is now partly dependent on two local politicians who appear certain to cause headaches for Washington and Tokyo.

The two - Hirokazu Nakaima and Yoichi Iha - are locked in a tight gubernatorial race in Okinawa that has broad implications for the alliance. That is because the Okinawan governor has the right under Japanese law to approve - or not - pending construction plans for the controversial Futenma U.S. Marine air base, currently tucked next to schoolyards and houses in Okinawa's densely populated Ginowan City. Both Washington and Tokyo want to relocate Futenma to a northern part of Okinawa prefecture, calling it an essential deterrent to an ascendant China and a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Nakaima, on the campaign trail, promises to make relocation difficult; he wants Futenma removed from the prefecture. Iha promises to make it almost impossible. He wants Futenma removed from Japan.

The race, to be decided Nov. 28, has left officials on both sides of the alliance with a growing sense of helplessness, as the security interests of two central governments meet the opposition of a small, fed-up island. Okinawa has hosted U.S. troops since World War II, receiving massive subsidies from Tokyo to ease the burden, and residents have voiced anti-base sentiments for decades. In the past year or two, though, those sentiments have become near-universal here.

"While Okinawa didn't have one voice in the past, we have now become much more united," said Sueko Yamauchi, a local lawmaker. "A new base will simply not be accepted."

According to a recent poll, 84 percent of Okinawans oppose the current plan for Futenma. And in recent months, politicians have won races by playing to that majority. An anti-base candidate was elected mayor of Nago, near the proposed relocation site, in January. Others won municipal assembly elections this fall. An anti-base candidate will no doubt win the gubernatorial election, too, in part because the incumbent Nakaima - who in 2006 said he "didn't completely oppose" relocation - changed his views in line with the times.

The current plan is part of a broader initiative between the United States and Japan that calls for the transfer of 8,000 U.S. troops and 9,000 dependents to Guam. Last year, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said that troops will move to Guam only if the Futenma facility is relocated to the agreed-upon site, on coastal landfill near Henoko, in the prefecture's less-populous north.

One U.S. official involved in the alliance calls this election "a critical juncture" but emphasizes that the current relocation plan remains viable - and the only concrete option for Tokyo and Washington, though even that has generated argument.

In September 2009, Japan elected a new ruling party - the Democratic Party of Japan, or DPJ - whose manifesto called for a review of the alliance. The new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, demanded Futenma's removal from Okinawa, driving U.S-Japan relations to a low point as his government sought alternatives. It didn't find any. In the end, Hatoyama apologized to Okinawan residents, telling them that the current plan remained the best plan. He resigned days later. Hatoyama's broken promise so eroded the DPJ's reputation that the party is not fielding a candidate in the gubernatorial election.

"There's a harsh wind blowing against us," said Shoukichi Kina, a DPJ representative in Okinawa.

That leaves Nakaima, backed by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeito Party, and the progressive Iha, backed by the Japan Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party, to battle it out.

Nakaima, 71, tends to appeal to business groups and people who note his experience in the international trade and industry ministry. That is important, local analysts say, because Okinawa's unemployment rate ranks highest among Japan's 47 prefectures. Nakaima would prefer to have the election be a referendum on the economy, not the Futenma relocation plan. At a recent rally, 6,300 Nakaima supporters filled the bleachers at a sports arena, and Nakaima talked about his plans to promote tourism and industry. He cracked a few jokes. Not once did he mention Futenma.

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