Okinawa’s incumbent governor who opposes an ongoing US Marine base relocation forced by Japan’s central government and is calling for a further reduction of US troops on the southern island on Sunday secured his re-election despite concerns of escalating tensions between China and nearby Taiwan.
Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki and his supporters declared his victory and celebrated with the chants of “banzai” soon after the exit poll results showed he beat two contenders — Atsushi Sakima, backed by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s governing bloc and supports its base relocation plan, and another opposition-backed candidate Mikio Shimoji.
Tamaki, who is backed by opposition parties, won 339,767 votes, or about 51 percent of the effective votes, over Sakima’s 274,844 votes and Shimoji’s 53,677, the final results released yesterday by Okinawa Prefecture showed. Polls were held on Sunday before his first four-year term is to end later this month.
Tamaki’s victory could deepen tensions between Okinawa and the central government.
The plan to move US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from a crowded neighborhood to a less populated area on the island has already been delayed for years. Okinawans call it a new construction rather than a relocation and want the Futenma base closed and removed from the island.
“My commitment to resolve the US military base problem for the future of Okinawa has never been shaken,” Tamaki said.
He said he will continue his endeavor to convey Okinawan’s will to the central government.
During the campaign, Tamaki also vowed to do more to improve the prefecture’s economy. Tourism on the semitropical island known for its corals, marine life and unique culture was badly hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Resentment and frustration run deep in Okinawa because of the heavy US presence and Tokyo’s lack of efforts to negotiate with Washington over how to balance the burden of hosting US troops between mainland Japan and the southern island group.
Okinawa, where one of the bloodiest battles in World War II was fought, was under US occupation until it returned to Japan’s control in 1972. Today, a majority of the 50,000 US troops based in Japan under a bilateral security pact and 70 percent of US military facilities are still in Okinawa, which accounts for only 0.6 percent of Japanese land.
Because of the US bases, Okinawa struggled with noise, pollution, accidents and crime related to US troops, Tamaki said.
Japan’s government has in the past few years shifted the nation’s defense posture to southwestern Japan, Okinawa and its remote islands and is pushing to significantly bolster Japan’s military capability and budget over the next five to 10 years, citing growing threats from China, North Korea and Russia.
Many in Okinawa are worried about the growing deployment of Japanese missile defenses and amphibious capabilities on outer islands that are close to geopolitical hot spots such as Taiwan, which China threatens to use force to annex.
Okinawans fear that they will be the first to be embroiled in a conflict over Taiwan.
The Futenma base relocation plan was developed after the 1995 rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl, in which three US servicemen were convicted. The case reignited local opposition to the US bases. The relocation has been delayed for years due to Okinawa’s resistance as well as environmental and structural issues in the Henoko area, where the new base in supposed to be set up.
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