Okinawa Election Sends Message of Defiance


On September 30, Tamaki Denny won the Okinawa gubernatorial election on a pledge to block US military construction at Henoko, defeating a candidate heavily backed by Japan’s political establishment. Journalist Fukumoto Daisuke, who has covered US base issues for years, comments on the election’s significance.

On September 30, 2018, Tamaki “Denny” Yasuhiro won the Okinawa gubernatorial election on a pledge to block US military construction at Henoko, defeating a candidate heavily backed by Japan’s political establishment, including the Japanese government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Vowing to uphold the legacy of Governor Onaga Takeshi, who had died in office the previous month, Tamaki captured 396,632 votes—more than any other gubernatorial candidate since Okinawa reverted to Japanese sovereignty in 1972—to outpoll former Ginowan Mayor Sakima Atsushi by more than 80,000 votes.

Election Overview

Although four candidates were vying for the governor’s spot in Okinawa’s September election, the race quickly shaped up as a contest between Tamaki and Sakima. For voters, the central issue was the longstanding agreement between the Japanese and US governments to build military facilities in Henoko in the city of Nago to replace Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, located in the densely populated community of Ginowan. Opponents of the plan want to see Futenma closed but take issue with the base’s relocation to Henoko, 50 kilometers to the north.

Tamaki declared his opposition to the Henoko relocation plan at the outset of the campaign. Sakima, while endorsed by forces committed to plan, was reluctant to come out in favor of it—especially with one important backer, Kōmeitō’s Okinawa chapter, declaring its opposition. His rather awkward solution was to steer clear of the Henoko issue altogether and focus on economic revitalization.

However, as Tamaki commented in a post-election interview, “The people of Okinawa saw through the ploy of staying silent on the Henoko plan even while promising a stronger economy through cooperation with the government and the LDP, which are actively pushing the plan. Voters don’t like being treated as chumps, and the backlash worked in my favor.”

Name recognition and an ability to connect with younger voters and independents have been cited as factors in Tamaki’s strong performance, but the critical difference was almost certainly his position on the Henoko relocation plan. The September Okinawa gubernatorial election, like the one four years earlier, was essentially a referendum on this one issue. With landfill work under way off the coast of Nago, the people of Okinawa fought back at the polls.

A view of the Henoko coastal area in Nago (already home to Camp Schwab), where the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is scheduled to be relocated. Landfill work was halted in late August 2018, after the prefecture revoked its permit. (© Jiji)

Honoring Onaga’s Last Wishes

The September election confirmed the verdict passed down by voters in the previous gubernatorial race, when Onaga Takeshi trounced incumbent Governor Nakaima Hirokazu with the support of a broad-based All Okinawa movement crossing traditional party lines.

Laying the groundwork for that coalition was the January 2013 petition, signed by the mayors of all 41 of Okinawa’s municipalities and the entire prefectural assembly, calling for timely closure of Futenma, cancellation of the Henoko relocation plan, and a halt to the deployment of MV-22 Osprey aircraft. Leading the campaign was Mayor Onaga Takeshi of Naha.

These were not unreasonable demands, given the grossly disproportionate burden of US bases in Okinawa. But the Japanese government gave the petition short shrift. Deployment of the accident-prone Ospreys proceeded as planned, and the government reaffirmed its determination to move forward with the Henoko relocation.

Confronted with mainland Japan’s obvious indifference to Okinawa’s plight, Onaga realized that the prefecture’s citizens needed to stand together, overcoming the stark left-right divide that had defined local politics for so many years. Severing his longstanding ties with the conservative LDP, Onaga reached out to the Japanese Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party, longtime opponents of the US bases, while enlisting the support of business leaders and others with conservative affiliations to build his All Okinawa coalition. He won the November 2014 gubernatorial election in a landslide.

As governor, Onaga made good on his promise to fight the relocation plan every step of the way. But on August 8, 2018, he lost his battle with pancreatic cancer and died in office at the age of 67. The gubernatorial election originally scheduled for November was moved up to September 30.

Shortly before his death, Onaga had recorded a voice message mentioning Tamaki Denny, a four-term member of the House of Representatives, as a possible successor. In late August, Tamaki announced his decision to honor Onaga’s “last wishes” and enter the race at the head of the All Okinawa coalition, pledging to carry on Onaga’s fight to stop the Henoko plan.

Differences in Style and Substance

The son of a US marine (whom he never knew) and an Okinawan woman, Tamaki Yasuhiro was bullied as a schoolchild. He credits his mother’s support and guidance for helping him overcome such prejudice and carve out a path for himself, first as a successful radio personality and later as the first Amerasian ever elected to Japan’s House of Representatives. Onaga spoke of him as someone who “epitomizes the history of Okinawa.”

In the other corner was Sakima Atsushi, the two-term mayor of Ginowan. Jointly fielded by four national parties—the LDP, Kōmeitō, Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party), and Kibō no Tō (Party of Hope)—Sakima also enjoyed the unstinting support of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and his cabinet. Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide flew to Okinawa three times to stump for Sakima, as did the young and popular Koizumi Shinjirō, one of the LDP’s big draws. Kōmeitō President Yamaguchi Natsuo, along with several top officers of the Sōka Gakkai Buddhist movement (the Kōmeitō’s parent organization) also showed up in a bid to mobilize the faithful.

The backing of these heavy-hitters gave Sakima a huge organizational advantage. It also seemed to give him the edge in terms of core voters.

In 2014, when Onaga defeated the LDP-backed Nakaima by 360,820 votes to 261,076, Nakaima had been hobbled by two factors. First, Kōmeitō had withheld its endorsement, with the result that many Sōka Gakkai voters cast their vote for Onaga. Second, the right-leaning Nippon Ishin had fielded its own candidate, Shimoji Mikio, who had captured about 70,000 votes that might otherwise have gone to Nakaima. Now, with the Kōmeitō’s backing and no serious competition from the right, Sakima was expected to grab at least 370,000 votes (assuming a turnout of 65%), while Tamaki, who had inherited Onaga’s base, was thought unlikely to improve on his predecessor’s performance. (Actual voter turnout was 63.2%, and Sakima’s final vote tally was 316,458.) Why was Sakima unable to deliver?

Sakima’s Feeble Stance

As a two-term mayor of Ginowan, Sakima should be as qualified as anyone to discuss the relocation issue.

Ginowan, a community of about 95,000, has the misfortune of being home to US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which occupies a large tract of land smack in the city’s geographical center. Flying over Futenma in 2003, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously remarked that it had to be “the most dangerous base in the world.”

Safety concerns surged to the fore after the August 2004 crash of a CH-53 helicopter on the campus of Okinawa International University, directly adjacent to the base. A number of close calls have occurred just over the past two years. In December 2014, one of Futenma’s Ospreys crashed just off the coast of Nago. In October 2017, a CH-53 chopper caught fire and crash-landed in a privately owned field in the village of Higashi. In December 2017, an unidentified part from a US military aircraft fell out of the sky onto a nursery school near the base. A few days later, a 7.7-kilogram window frame fell from a CH-53 chopper onto the grounds of a Ginowan elementary school, near where students were gathered.

Residents have also complained bitterly about aircraft noise, pollution, and other problems originating at the base—as Sakima knows only too well.

Indeed, in his gubernatorial campaign, Sakima argued that the most important thing was “to remove the dangers posed by the Futenma air base and arrange for return [of the land]” as soon as possible. Yet he refused to discuss the construction of replacement facilities 50 kilometers away in Henoko. This stance might make sense for the mayor of Ginowan, but it seems highly problematic for someone running for governor of Okinawa.

For one thing, it ignores Futenma’s fraught history. The origins of the base go back to 1945, before the end of World War II, when invading US forces built an airfield on land seized in the Battle of Okinawa in preparation for an attack on the Japanese mainland. This is land that the United States took from the people of Okinawa during wartime, and it seems outrageous to ask the prefecture to offer up more land now that Futenma is getting old and dangerous.

Second, it shows an insensitivity to the dangers posed to people outside the Ginowan area. At last count, the US military had some 88 helipads scattered all over Okinawa. Since 1972, there have been 17 crashes involving aircraft that took off from Futenma, and 14 of those occurred outside of Ginowan’s city limits. The helicopters may return home to Futenma, but they fly and land all over Okinawa in tough training exercises designed to simulate wartime or disaster conditions. Moving the main depot to Henoko will not remove the danger of crashes and other accidents.

Third, Sakima’s position overlooks the most fundamental problem: the lopsided distribution of the US base burden. Some 70% of the land used exclusively by US forces in Japan is concentrated in Okinawa, which makes up just 0.6% of Japan’s total land area. Futenma’s 480 hectares account for a mere 2.5% of the 18,800 hectares occupied by US military installations in Okinawa.

Fighting for Their Rights

The Japanese and US governments have rejected alternative plans that would involve moving Futenma’s aircraft out of Okinawa, insisting that the infantry and aviation units that share MCAS Futenma cannot be separated. Henoko, they insist, is the only solution. What this tells Okinawans is that the Henoko relocation plan, if carried out, will permit the US Marine Corps to maintain its current presence in Okinawa indefinitely, imposing the same unfair burden on future generations of Okinawans.

This is why the voters of Okinawa viewed the Henoko relocation plan as the central election issue, something on which every candidate needed to take a clear stand.

Of course, this is not the only challenge Okinawa faces. The prefecture is grappling with daunting economic and social problems, including the highest child poverty rate in the nation. As the Japanese government’s candidate, Sakima held out hope for more resources to meet those challenges in exchange for cooperation on the Henoko plan. Yet the people of Okinawa chose Tamaki, putting the base issue first. In doing so, they sent a clear message: We will not bear this unfair burden indefinitely.

Tamaki’s election was not some passing tribute to the memory of Governor Onaga, and it will certainly not be the people’s last word on the base issue. In a 2017 opinion poll by the Okinawa Times, 54% of respondents agreed that discrimination against Okinawa was at work in the disproportionate concentration of US bases in the prefecture. As long as the rest of the nation remains indifferent to this injustice, the citizens of Okinawa will continue their fight.

(Originally published in Japanese on October 17, 2018. Banner photo: Tamaki Denny greets supporters in Okinawa city on the morning of October 1, 2018, following his victory in the September 30 Okinawa gubernatorial election. © Jiji.)

Okinawa military bases US military