U.S. Marines salute while Japanese and U.S. flags are lowered at evening colors at Camp Foster near Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa prefecture, on Nov. 14. (Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images)

The man likely to become the next governor of Okinawa insists he’s not anti-American. He’s not even anti-alliance. In fact, he declares, he loves the United States.

But what he really loves, most of all: democracy.

“It’s good to be democratic,” Takeshi Onaga said in an interview at one of his campaign offices in central Naha, the capital of this sub­tropical island chain south of the Japanese mainland. “How can we criticize countries like China if we don’t respect democracy here in Japan?”

For the first time, the U.S. military ­bases are the centerpiece of a major campaign in Okinawa. And, in another possible break with political tradition, Okinawa stands to elect a candidate Sunday with an unaccommodating stance toward the U.S. military.

In this case, it’s outright opposition to the relocation of a controversial Marine Corps base.

Japanese politics takes on U.S. bases

Opinion polls give a strong lead to Onaga, a conservative former mayor of Naha. His main campaign platform: no new U.S. military bases­ in Okinawa and no new Ospreys, the noisy aircraft that are viewed here as dangerous.

Onaga is vowing to stop the planned shift of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma — in the middle of the most crowded part of Okinawa’s main island — to a more remote location farther north. He wants it closed rather than moved.

As the new air station is built over the coming years, the number of Marines based on Okinawa should fall from about 18,000 to about 10,000 as more are deployed elsewhere in the Pacific, the Pentagon has said.

Futenma is surrounded by residential areas, and a preschool is just a few hundred yards from the tip of a runway. The crash of a military helicopter on the grounds of a nearby university in 2004 is talked about as if it happened yesterday.

Onaga’s opposition to the base relocation, combined with his conservative credentials, has enabled him to win broad support.

Trailing in second place, polls show, is the incumbent, fellow conservative Hirokazu Nakaima, who reneged on a promise to stop the relocation. But political analysts warn of shortcomings in the polls, meaning the race could be closer than it appears.

A loss for Nakaima also would be a blow to Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party. Abe backed the incumbent and is suffering from plummeting poll ratings.

It could also cause ripples in Abe’s relationship with Washington, which wants quick progress on building the new base, in area called Henoko.

Abe’s aides insist that the relocation project will continue even if Onaga wins, vowing to fight all the way to Japan’s Supreme Court — and to continue construction all the while. One prefecture cannot decide matters of national security, they say.

Indeed, it is far from clear whether Onaga would be able to stop the construction at Henoko. A land-reclamation project to allow two runways to be built was approved by Nakaima using a legal process, and overturning it would be difficult.

But Onaga, wearing the kind of aloha shirt that is typical here, warns that Tokyo would be unwise to so blatantly ignore Okinawans’ wishes.

“Okinawa has suffered a lot. Why do we have to suffer more? What we are saying is that we want all of Japan to share the burden,” he said, adding that the prefecture comprises 0.6 percent of the Japanese land mass but houses 74 percent of the U.S. military bases in the country.

Just north of Futenma lies Kadena, a huge air base and the launching place for fighter jets that roar through the Okinawan skies day and night. A large swath of a northern part of the island is given over to jungle warfare training for Marines.

If the U.S.-Japan security alliance is so important, Onaga contended, then all of Japan should be sharing it.

“When we complain about Futenma being in Okinawa, we are asked if we like the U.S. or are we anti-U.S.? We are asked if we are against the Japanese government,” he said. “How are we supposed to live like this?”

Okinawa has a complicated relationship with both the Japanese mainland and the United States. It was an independent kingdom — called the Ryukyu — until it was annexed by Japan in 1879, and Okinawans say they were treated like second-class citizens from the outset.

Okinawa was later the site of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, followed by almost three decades of U.S. occupation. Okinawa was handed back to Japan in 1972, but the huge military bases remained, making central parts of the main island feel a little like a slice of America.

Ordinary Okinawans complain about the risks involved with having huge military bases on their island, including accidents, crime and aircraft noise.

But Japan’s central government has historically used its financial assistance to Okinawa as a tool to keep anti-base sentiment in check.

Manabu Sato, a political science professor at Okinawa International University, the campus next to Futenma, said an Onaga victory “will be a triumph for the Okinawan people.”

“They will be overthrowing the structure that the Japanese government put in place after the war,” he said.

Onaga contends that Okinawa’s revenue from commerce far outweighs what it earns from the bases­. And he warns of a backlash if Tokyo tries the same tricks this time around.

Okinawans would start agitating against Kadena and other bases that are not currently controversial, he said.

Protesters stationed in front of an existing Marine Corps depot at Henoko — the small footprint for the planned larger relocation — have high hopes for Onaga.

“If the Japanese government continues to ignore what the Okinawan people want, it will lead to the closure of all the American bases­ on these islands,” said Hiroji Yamashiro, the leader of the Okinawa Peace Action Center and a regular at the protest site. “We’re about to explode.”

Yuki Oda contributed to this report.