Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday repeated his pledge to forge ahead with a contentious plan to move a key U.S. air base within Okinawa, a day after a candidate he backed won in a mayoral election in the southern Japan prefecture.
“By gaining the understanding of local citizens, we will go ahead (with the base transfer plan) in accordance with the Supreme Court’s ruling,” Abe told reporters at his office, referring to a 2016 top court decision declaring illegal Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga’s revocation of his predecessor’s approval for reclamation work related to the base move.
In Sunday’s mayoral race in Nago, where U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is scheduled to be transferred from a crowded residential area in Ginowan, Taketoyo Toguchi, 56, a newcomer backed by Abe, defeated antibase incumbent Susumu Inamine, 72, who had sought a third four-year term.
Toguchi, a former Nago city assembly member, was backed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior collation partner Komeito, while Inamine was supported by Onaga, a strong opponent of the U.S. military facilities in the prefecture, and most opposition parties. The governor has called for the Futenma base to be moved out of Okinawa altogether.
“I had thought it would be hard (for Toguchi) to beat the incumbent, so it was really good that he won. Standing by locals, we will do our best to support the further development of Okinawa,” the prime minister said.
The focal point of the mayoral race was the planned base transfer to the sparsely populated Henoko coastal area of Nago. But Toguchi repeatedly highlighted his plan to spur the sluggish local economy during the election campaign, inviting criticism from Inamine that he tried to “evade the issue.”
“I hope (Toguchi) will handle local affairs in a stable manner and live up to the expectations of local citizens that (the new mayor) will focus on the economy, employment, education, welfare and the environment,” Abe added.
Okinawa hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan. Accidents involving American military aircraft and crimes involving U.S. personnel have angered local residents, but gaining more economic support from the central government has also been a key issue in local elections in the prefecture.
On Monday, Toguchi said he will “maintain a certain distance” from the central government on the base issue as there is “a perception gap” between the state and locals, giving consideration to those opposed to the transfer plan.
He apparently referred to the resignation in late January of Fumiaki Matsumoto, a senior vice minister at the Cabinet Office, after heckling another lawmaker at the Diet in a discussion of recent forced landings by U.S. helicopters in Okinawa.
Matsumoto quit after calling out in parliament, “How many people have died in the incidents?” when an opposition lawmaker criticized the government over a recent series of accidents and mishaps involving U.S. military aircraft in the island prefecture that left no casualties among local citizens.
Following the Supreme Court decision in December 2016, the central government began building seawalls for a planned Futenma replacement facility in April last year, taking a major step toward the relocation originally agreed on by Japan and the United States in 1996.
In July, Onaga filed a fresh lawsuit to block the Futenma relocation plan, returning to a court battle with the central government.