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Henoko and economic gap will be points of contention in Okinawa gubernatorial race

By Hanazawa Aoi and Miyahara Kenta


Now that Okinawa Governor Tamaki Denny has officially declared his bid for re-election, the gubernatorial election campaign has effectively kicked off. Just like in the previous election, Sakima Atsushi, who receives the backing of the government and the ruling parties and favors the relocation of U.S. Marines Corps Air Station Futenma to Henoko, will challenge Tamaki, an opponent of relocation. “Clinching victory this time will help make the government more stable,” says a senior lawmaker from the ruling parties.


Tamaki is backed by the anti-relocation “All Okinawa” forces joined by the Constitutional Democratic Party for Japan (CDPJ), the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), and the Socialist Party of Japan (SPJ). On the other hand, Sakima built strong connections with the government and ruling parties during his tenure as mayor of Ginowan. In particular, he has since maintained good ties with Suga Yoshihide, who served as chief cabinet secretary and minister in charge of reducing Okinawa’s base-hosting burden under the Abe government.


Ishii Keiichi, secretary-general of the Komeito Party, which is expected to back Sakima, pins high hopes on the former Ginowan mayor and described him as an “attractive candidate full of vitality” at a press conference on June 10. However, the fact that Sakima lost to Tamaki by a margin of about 80,000 votes in the previous race worries some Liberal Democratic Party members. “The vote split during the selection process at our election committee as we had another strong candidate. But now we are ready to gear up for the race,” a person from the local LDP chapter said while expressing expectations Sakima will gain in popularity from now. 


Once the Kishida government can sail through the summer Upper House election, no major national election will take place for some time. So the government will be able to reach a period of political stability and dedicate more time and effort to address key issues concerning Okinawa, including the Henoko relocation project. But one condition must be met to accelerate the relocation project: victory in the gubernatorial race to “take back the reins of power in the prefecture.”


Since the beginning of the year, candidates backed by the LDP and Komeito won four consecutive mayoral races in the prefecture. But now that the prefecture’s base-hosting burden and “economic gap” with other prefectures (it is last among the 47 prefectures in prefectural income) are re-emerging as points of contention, the LDP leadership points out that the government may lose momentum and must remain vigilant because the “gubernatorial election is different from mayoral races.”


On the part of the CDPJ, JCP and SDP who back Tamaki, they cannot afford to lose the gubernatorial race this time, even though the momentum that led Tamaki to a resounding victory last time is fading. At a press conference held on June 10, CDPJ representative Izumi Kenta applauded Tamaki by saying that the governor “recognizes the sentiment of the prefecture’s citizens and worked hard to reduce the prefecture’s base-hosting burden and promote economic development” and stressed the party’s commitment to support Tamaki. (Abridged)

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