Former Japanese minister of state for Okinawa and Northern Territories affairs Aiko Shimajiri fist-bumps supporters as she walks into a rally at a bullring in Uruma, Japan, as she relishes the prospect of pulling off an upset victory in tomorrow’s parliamentary vote.
Nationwide, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is expected to lose seats in the Japanese House of Representatives, the lower, but more powerful chamber of the Japanese Diet, due largely to voter dissatisfaction over the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, in Okinawa Prefecture — long a bastion of the pacifist opposition — the LDP’s harder line on China and proactive security policy is helping it win over younger voters.
“If we don’t have US forces and our Self-Defense Forces (SDF) here, we can be attacked by China,” said Takuji Ikemiya, a 41-year-old electrician who attended the Uruma rally. “We think differently from the older generation that has experienced the war and its aftermath.”
Older voters are mostly sticking with left-wing parties, mindful of Okinawa’s past as one of the bloodiest battlegrounds of World War II, and opposing the US military bases that house 50,000 people and take up one-fifth of the main island.
The LDP has called for an unprecedented doubling in defense spending, largely in response to China’s aggressive military posture on Taiwan, only 110km from the westernmost point of the prefecture.
The LDP would unlikely reverse its projected losses on this issue alone, experts say.
However, that the party is on the cusp of making gains in Okinawa shows how concerns over China are helping the LDP win a longer game with the electorate.
The LDP’s internal polling data show support for one of its Okinawa candidates at about 40 percent among people in their 30s and 40s. It stands at only 25 percent among those older than 60, with close to half of that cohort backing an opponent from the Japanese Communist Party.
The opposition’s “All Okinawa” movement, which has dominated local politics with its anti-base message, has been losing steam: A candidate backed by the ruling bloc won a mayoral race in Uruma in April, and a powerful corporate sponsor switched sides to the LDP last month.
“All Okinawa” holds three out of four Okinawa districts, but polls show that the LDP, which holds the remaining seat, could snatch one more if Shimajiri converts a tight battle into a win.
“My parents support ‘All Okinawa’ because of their anti-base position, but I grew up with American bases and I take them for granted,” said Kazuhisa Higa, 33, a construction worker who said he would vote for the LDP.
The Okinawa trend captures a broader shift started about a decade ago by then-Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who galvanized younger voters with his nationalist message, said Yoichiro Sato, an international relations professor at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University.
“Abe lowered the voting age to 18, knowing that the agenda he was promoting would attract younger voters. Conservative agenda, defense was one of those, but also nationalism,” Sato said, adding that Abe’s economic program was also popular.
Under Abe, Japan introduced laws allowing its troops to fight on foreign soil, ended a ban on military exports and reinterpreted the country’s war-renouncing constitution to allow missile strikes on enemy territory.
A poll in the daily Mainichi Shimbun last week showed the trend holding up across Japan, with 40 percent of those under 40 backing the LDP, compared with 10 percent for the largest opposition party.
Five hundred kilometers southwest of Okinawa Island, on the small island of Yonaguni, from where Taiwan’s mountains are visible a few times a year, the China threat is palpable.
During the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, Chinese missiles landed close to the island, threatening Japanese and Taiwanese fishing boats, 64-year-old fisher Hirotoshi Ogimi said.
“At that time, Taiwanese fishing boats entered the fishing grounds near Yonaguni to avoid pressure from China,” he said.
Two decades later, to Beijing’s chagrin, Japan opened a radar station on the island to gather intelligence on China.
The result is a place of surreal contrasts, where wild horses roam and huge military radar towers loom in the background. About 1,700 villagers live on the island, including 240 soldiers and their families.
Some in the island chain complain that bases make them a potential target. Others, like Mariko Nishiyama, 36, who runs a horse ranch on Yonaguni, said that she used to be afraid of China, but “now that we have the SDF base, I feel safer in case of a crisis.”
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