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Government and Economy

The complexities and intricacies of public opinion in Okinawa
– Analyzing the past and the present

Hiroshi Komatsu
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

The Ginowan mayoral election and changes in post-war Okinawan politics

The mayoral election in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, took place on January 24, and Atsushi Sakima, the incumbent mayor running for a second term, won his bid for re-election over his newcomer opponent. Although it followed the pattern so often seen in leadership elections in regional municipalities, the results of this particular election were reported on the front pages of national newspapers the next morning. The reason is simple: the city of Ginowan is home to the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. The relocation site of this military base has been a matter of contentious debate between the Japanese government and Okinawa Prefecture, a dispute that has led to a battle in court.

The government has been steadily pushing ahead with construction ever since they reached a bilateral agreement with the U.S. to move the base to Henoko in the northern Okinawan city of Nago. There has been much public outcry in Okinawa against relocating the base within the prefecture, and in November 2014, Takeshi Onaga was elected governor and urged for the base to be relocated outside Okinawa. He formed a united front with radical parties despite being a conservative politician and defeated the previous governor who had approved the relocation of the base to Henoko. In the general election the following month, candidates who opposed the Henoko relocation plan won all four constituencies in Okinawa.

The establishment of Onaga’s prefectural administration, which campaigned for "Identity Over Ideology" and "All Okinawa," sent shockwaves throughout the Okinawan political landscape. It is as a change in the long-standing dynamics of post-war Okinawan politics, which had situated conservatives versus radicals since the end of World War II.

Evaluation of election results

In this Ginowan mayoral election, the central government supported the incumbent mayor, and the prefectural government backed the first-time candidate. This structure was dubbed a "proxy war" between country and prefecture. However, opinions concerning Sakima’s re-election are by no means unanimous.

A comparison of newspaper editorials shows two opposing viewpoints. There is the view that the election results reflect public acceptance of the relocation plan, and that "the public is indisputably beginning to accept relocation to Henoko as the easiest and most realistic way to stop the Futenma base from becoming permanent " (Yomiuri Shimbun, January 25). “…[the victory] can be said to be a result of the public concluding that the relocation to Henoko is a more realistic way of avoiding risks" (The Sankei Shimbun, January 25). This interpretation is corroborated by the simple fact that the re-elected incumbent was backed by the LDP-Komeito coalition, which is pushing forward with the relocation to Henoko.

Contrary to the above, there were editorials that commented, "…the [central] administration would be rash to regard the results as public acceptance of the relocation to Henoko" (Asahi Shimbun, January 26), and that "this result merely illustrates the citizens’ wish that Futenma, 'the world’s most dangerous base,' be restored to them as early as possible. No way is this to be interpreted as approval of the relocation to Henoko" (Mainichi Shimbun, January 25). The basis for these viewpoints includes Sakima’s reticence regarding the propriety of the relocation to Henoko that prevented the matter from becoming a point of contention in the election, and the exit polls, in which over 55% of the electorate expressed opposition to the relocation.

Ever since Japan and the U.S. reached an agreement on the relocation of the Futenma air base in 1996 two decades or so ago, the construction of the new base has been a major point of contention throughout all elections in Okinawa. Although attitudes toward the base appear to be changing, some commentators say public opinion in Okinawa is hard to pin down.

Elections and the conditions for accepting the construction of the new base

In December 1997, for example, a non-binding referendum was held in Nago regarding the construction of a new base off the coast of Henoko. The majority of residents voted against the plan. However, Nago’s then-mayor Tetsuya Higa yielded to the central government’s strong demand, and accepted the relocation plan before resigning from office. The mayoral election held the following February saw the election of Tateo Kishimoto, the successor of the previous mayor, who was backed by the pro-base camp.

It seems at first as though the outcome of that election also ran contrary to the public opinion as represented by the referendum. However, Governor Masahide Ota had in fact declared his opposition to the relocation to Henoko during the election period, and Kishimoto declared that he would comply with the prefectural policy. Due to this circumstance, the debate was no longer divided between approval and disapproval for the new base. In their analysis, local newspapers accredited Kishimoto’s victory to the fact that the base had been removed from the scope of the electoral debate.

By this point a pattern had already emerged in which any candidate backed by the pro-base camp could not win an election if he or she expressed approval. Keiichi Inamine, who defeated Ota for governor the same year, pledged the military and civilians would share the new base, and that there would be a 15-year limit imposed on the military base. He said that construction of the new base must be accepted, seeing as it would become an airport exclusively for public use in 15 years, and an asset for Okinawa residents.

To win elections in Okinawa, candidates have to attach strict provisions to the acceptance of the new base. It is important that we not only look at election results, but also carefully examine the lead-up to those results as well as the content and undertone of the discussions.

Otherwise, we may arrive at a misguided interpretation of Okinawa’s "public opinion."

Endless negotiations between Japan and Okinawa

The results are out for the Ginowan mayoral election, but there are more elections to come: first the prefectural assembly election (June), then the House of Councilors election (term will expire in July). Alongside these elections, court battles will also continue to develop. Although it is difficult to predict what course the dispute will follow, one thing is certain: the negotiations between the Government of Japan and Okinawa Prefecture will continue.

This process has been repeated time and again in post-war history. Chobyo Yara, who won the first election for the position of Chief Executive of the Government of the Ryukyu Islands (present-day governor equivalent) in November 1968, when Okinawa was still under U.S. control, promised "instant, unconditional and total restitution." In order to deliver the voice of the Okinawan people to the Japanese government, which was in the middle of negotiations with the U.S. over the return of Okinawa, Yara went to Tokyo again and again—seven times in 1969 alone—and held talks with government leaders, including then prime minister Eisaku Sato. Ota became governor after the 1990 election, having pushed for the consolidation and reduction of U.S. bases, stating that Okinawa was due the "peace dividend" afforded by the end of the Cold War. In 1996, the year of the Japan-U.S. agreement on the relocation of the Futenma base, Governor Ota and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto met ten times.

Since World War II, political leaders in Okinawa have conducted repeated negotiations with the Japanese government, supported by the public will of their residents, whose trust they gained through elections. Until the so-called "Okinawa Issue" is resolved, this stalemate between country and prefecture is likely to remain unresolved.

Hiroshi Komatsu
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University


Komatsu was born in Okinawa in 1981. He graduated from Waseda’s School of Social Sciences in 2004, and then studied in the doctoral program at Waseda’s Graduate School of Social Sciences. He left after gaining the required credits, and later obtained his Ph.D. After serving as an assistant at Waseda University’s School of Social Sciences, a Postdoctoral Fellow (PD) at the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and other posts, he was appointed to his current position in 2015. His specializes in international relations and post-war Okinawan history.

[Key publications]

For and Against Reversion to Japan: The Development of Post-War Okinawan Nationalism (author; Waseda University Press, 2015), Revisiting Japan’s Security from Okinawa (co-author; Iwanami Shoten, 2015), etc.