Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai has begun building a relationship of trust with Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga, who is at odds with the government over the issue of relocating the U.S. military Futenma airfield (Ginowan City, Okinawa) to Henoko in Nago City. Nikai, who arrived in Okinawa on Sept. 13 and held talks with Onaga the following day, said, “I will do my best to meet Governor Onaga’s expectations,” emphasizing his stance of attaching importance to dialogue. While Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who represents the government on Okinawa issues, takes a “tough stance” toward Okinawa, Nikai intends to win over Onaga by giving him support from the LDP indirectly. There are, however, voices of concern that Nikai’s approach might deviate from the government’s policy.
“Despite many difficult issues, I would like to overcome them through discussions,” said Nikai at the meeting after accepting a letter of request from Onaga concerning securing funds for Okinawa development and the cancellation of the Henoko relocation. In this way, Nikai indicated that he will do his utmost to resolve the issues.
Nikai also demonstrated his consideration for Okinawa through “formalities.” In contrast to his predecessor Sadakazu Tanigaki, who only visited Okinawa during election campaigns, Nikai selected the prefecture as the destination of his first “official visit” as LDP secretary general, other than Hokkaido where held a study meeting of his faction. In addition, LDP Executive Acting Secretary General Hakubun Shimomura and two acting secretary generals accompanied Nikai, Furthermore, he has assigned four LDP deputy secretary generals to coordinate with the Okinawa government.
Nikai has apparently already won the heart of the governor. At the meeting, Onaga criticized the government by saying, “Doesn’t the government lack consideration in building a relationship of trust?” Meanwhile, the governor said to the press, “I got the impression that we will be able to have a free and open-minded exchange of views,” expressing his expectations for Nikai.
Nikai has maintained personal relations with Onaga’s elder brother and there is a group of his supporters in Okinawa. He also has many acquaintances in the prefecture’s tourism and construction industries. “No other secretary general has ever come to Okinawa as soon as Nikai did right after assuming the post,” said a Diet member elected from an Okinawa constituency. “The development of tourism and roads are Nikai’s specialties, and now Okinawa has a second strong connection after Suga.”
At a press conference on Sept. 14, Suga said regarding the base issues, “The government will work on the issues while keeping the channels of communication open,” stressing cooperation with Nikai. Suga met with Nikai on Sept. 13 before he departed for Okinawa apparently to coordinate on how to proceed.
Suga is the one who implied that the development budget for Okinawa will be reduced by saying that the budget will be linked to the base issues, The Okinawa government regarded this as putting pressure on the prefecture. As for Henoko relocation, Suga emphasized, “The government and ruling parties are united in their decision that Henoko is the only viable solution.” Nikai did not talk about moving forward with Henoko relocation in his meeting with Onaga. “If Nikai deviates from the government policy, it could cause confusion,” said a middle-ranking LDP official.
Nikai is good at using the “splitting the difference” approach in order to save both parties’ faces. However, if Nikai leans too far in favor of Okinawa, the division of labor between Suga and Nikai could break down. Whether their cooperation will be successful depends on Nikai’s actions from now on.