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Meet the top contenders seeking to lead Okinawa: Atsushi Sakima and Denny Tamaki

  • September 13, 2018
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press



OSAKA – Campaigning for the Sept. 30 Okinawa gubernatorial election officially kicked off Thursday, with two main candidates vying for leadership of the prefecture — Atsushi Sakima, 54, and Denny Tamaki, 58.


They are experienced politicians with very different ideologies and views on the issue that has come to dominate the contest: what to do about construction of a replacement facility in Nago’s Henoko district for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.


Here is a look at both candidates and the policies they would likely pursue as governor:


Atsushi Sakima

Sakima is the former mayor of Ginowan, where the Futenma base is located. He defeated a staunchly anti-base candidate in the 2012 election by a narrow margin and was later easily re-elected.


Sakima is a karate expert who entered local politics after returning from France, where he studied and worked for a number of years for a travel company. As Ginowan mayor, he made shutting down Futenma his top priority. However, supported by the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, he defeated a candidate who went further by opposing the Henoko facility and calling for Futenma to be relocated outside Okinawa Prefecture.


In 2012, not long after becoming mayor, it was revealed that Sakima had been a member of the influential conservative lobby group Japan Conference (Nippon Kaigi), which is a staunch supporter of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government and advocates constitutional revision and other conservative and nationalist causes. Asked if he would continue his Japan Conference activities by assembly member Isao Tobaru in June 2012, Sakima said the group had many activities and he would support those policies he agreed with.


For the gubernatorial election, Sakima, who has the strong support of Abe and the LDP, as well as the backing of its coalition partner Komeito, is pursuing a basic strategy of avoiding mention of Henoko. Instead, he is emphasizing the importance of closing down Futenma and offering a 10-point plan for Okinawa’s revival that is largely about child care and local economic issues, including promises of funding and projects for increased tourism, as well as financial assistance for not only the prefecture’s main island but also Miyakojima, Ishigaki, and the outer islands.


In his campaign manifesto, Sakima has promised to make all efforts to close Futenma, saying that doing so will solve the noise problems around the base and remove the controversial Osprey aircraft from the area. He is emphasizing his connections with Tokyo, and Abe and the LDP are emphasizing their connections with Sakima, as a plus in effective negotiations over base problems.


But most of his manifesto concerns economic and social welfare issues. Sakima has promised to raise the average annual prefectural income from about ¥2.1 million to ¥3 million, and he plans to tackle child poverty issues with funding programs for school lunches and school transportation. He also has plans to expand the range of free medical care for children.


On economic projects, he supports construction of a theme park in the northern part of the main island where Nago and Henoko are located. However, Sakima has not made his views clear on the possibility of Okinawa hosting an integrated casino resort, which some of his supporters want.


Denny Tamaki

Tamaki, whose father was American, had a successful career as a local radio announcer and media personality — he is a fan of musical artists ranging from Eric Clapton to Nickelback — before he went into politics. A former Okinawa assemblyman and Lower House member, Tamaki was asked to run by the supporters of former Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who died last month after a battle with pancreatic cancer.


Tamaki inherits Onaga’s “all Okinawa” support base, a loose coalition of traditional anti-base, anti-Japan-U.S. security treaty activists, liberal opposition party members, labor leaders, academics and younger people, as well as business leaders and others opposed to the Henoko project but not necessarily the U.S.-Japan military alliance. He is emphasizing the importance of Okinawa’s cultural identity and its differences with the rest of Japan over political ideology.


Tamaki is strongly opposed to the Henoko project and has vowed that no new base would be built there if he is governor, the same position Onaga took. Tamaki has indicated support for legal efforts by the prefecture to block construction of the Henoko facility. In addition, he has promised to lobby other governors to put pressure on Tokyo and Washington to revise the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces agreement in ways that would give prefectures hosting U.S. bases more authority to intervene when accidents or incidents at the bases occur.


Tamaki’s other campaign promises are heavy on a variety of economic revitalization projects, ranging from a proposal to turn Okinawa into the “Caribbean of the Pacific” with domestic and international luxury cruises, to various outer islands, to a rail system that would link the northern and southern ends of the main island. He also supports the construction of new international convention facilities and related businesses, but opposes casino gambling.


Like Sakima, a good portion of Tamaki’s manifesto is devoted to promises aimed at battling child poverty and providing welfare assistance to children, their parents and the elderly, as well those who are physically disabled. This includes a new hospital for the northern part of the main island and increased medevac services for the outer islands.


To help promote traditional culture and increase local and international tourism, Tamaki is calling for the establishment of an annual “Ryukyu History and Culture Day” on an unspecified date. He has promised new programs to assist those who want to pursue traditional Okinawan art, music and other cultural forms, and to have Okinawa’s traditional karate registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.


Finally, Tamaki, long a staunch opponent of nuclear power, has promised no nuclear power plants will be built in Okinawa, saying he would push instead for investment in renewable energy projects.

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