by Daniel Leussink
NAHA, Japan - Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Sunday’s gubernatorial election on the subtropical Japanese islands of Okinawa was the absence of a candidate supported by Minshuto, the ruling party.
Minshuto - the Democratic Party of Japan - refrained from fielding a candidate or backing any of the other contenders in the electoral race after an ordinary spat between local assemblymen and party leaders in Tokyo over a controversial relocation accord for a contentious United States marine base. But this election was about more than the relocation of the military base for the local assemblymen.
After losing his parliamentary seat in July, Shoukichi Kina, the head of Minshuto’s Okinawa chapter, proposed to run in the gubernatorial race by putting the relocation accord on the discussion table once more. He was banned from running by the Minshuto leadership.
"We’re not against the Japan-US Security Treaty," he says. "But under the Security Treaty is the Status of Forces Agreement. If you look at it closely, it protects US forces in Japan, but has nothing to do with Okinawa. That’s the lie."
In the Security Treaty, the US promised to defend Japan in case it comes under attack from a third-party nation state. Japan also hides under the US nuclear umbrella, a powerful deterrent within East Asia’s fragile security situation.
Okinawa makes up 0.6% of Japan’s territory but hosts 75% of US military bases. Okinawans have complained for decades about the unfair and unequal footprint left by US forces on the tiny southern prefecture. It extends beyond sexual assault, hit-and-runs and low-flying noise-producing fighter jets. The US military forces control 40% of Okinawan airspace and 29 ports.
Minshuto promised to lessen that burden by relocating the US marine base Futenma from a densely populated part of central Okinawa to outside the prefecture. But in May it did a 180-degree turn, broke its election pledge, signed off on the relocation accord with the US and decided on moving Futenma to a less-densely populated part of northern Okinawa. Futenma’s 8,000 marines and 9,000 dependants would move to Guam.
The accord has already cost one Japanese prime minister his job, with Yukio Hatoyama abruptly throwing in the towel days after his badly timed approval of it.
"We believe we owe the people of Okinawa a double apology," said Minister of Foreign Affairs Seiji Maehara in October, addressing Okinawan frustrations resulting from the unequal burden and the broken election pledge. "We will take a double approach, on the one hand apologizing sincerely and at the same time persevering in asking for Okinawa’s understanding and acceptance [of the construction of Futenma’s replacement facility]."
In Sunday’s tense gubernatorial race, Okinawans for a fourth time in a row voted for a conservative candidate instead of a progressive one. Hirokazu Nakaima received 38,000 votes more than his main rival, hard-liner Yoichi Iha, and won a second four-year term as governor. Both men vowed to seek to move the Futenma marine base outside the prefecture. But idealist Iha opposed the Japan-US Security Treaty, while pragmatist Nakaima supported it.
In 2006, the 71-year-old Nakaima said he "did not completely oppose" the construction of Futenma’s replacement facility in line with the relocation accord. But his views changed matching popular sentiment and he called for moving it outside the prefecture.
Under Japanese law, the Okinawan governor has the right to approve - or not - pending construction plans for the replacement facility. The victory of a governor opposed to the accord gave Japan’s national government a powerful bargaining stick in negotiations with the US to indefinitely delay its construction.
"The base relocation accord was struck without consultations with us and we have not been provided with convincing explanations," Nakaima said after his election victory. "There is no place in Okinawa to move Futenma to."
Newspaper polls showed that a large majority of islanders opposed the construction of the replacement facility. Last April, 90,000 Okinawans gathered in a small village in the heart of the island and demonstrated peacefully against the plans.
"It is in the nature of Okinawans to help each other in everything they do, so violent conflict could be avoided until now," says Naoya Iju, associate director of the Military Base Affairs Division in the prefectural government. "But if the tension rises further, the danger exists that violent riots might occur."
Just like Minshuto front man Kina, the prefectural government would like to see a revision of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), an important Cold War treaty in which Japan and the US laid down a framework of rules and regulations and financial support for US bases and servicemen in Japan.
SOFA gives US servicemen extraterritorial privileges: It stipulates that Japanese authorities cannot enter US bases without permission and that US authorities are not required to hand over suspected servicemen in criminal cases prior to indictment, and it exempts the US from restoring occupied land to its original state or compensating for such restoration at the time of land return to Japan.
Katsuya Okada, a Minshuto leader and former minister of foreign affairs, confirmed at least twice that Japan and the US are negotiating a SOFA revision. So far Minshuto has failed to achieve concrete results from this.
"The aim and function of the Japan-US alliance changed, but the mentality is still in the Cold War," says Masaaki Gabe, a professor of international relations at the University of Ryukyus.
If governor Nakaima refuses to give a go-ahead to the construction of the contested replacement facility, the Japanese government could try changing a law that gives governors veto rights over land reclamation projects through Japan’s parliament. It approved similar changes in the 1990’s, when an Okinawan governor refused to sign off on extensions of land leases.
"The election was about whether or not Okinawan democracy works," says Chobin Zukeran, a Minshuto legislator in the lower house of Japan’s national parliament. "I’m Okinawan. I was elected by the Okinawan people. I can’t ignore the Okinawan people plus I can’t ignore myself. I will stand up for the people of Okinawa."
Daniel Leussink is a Dutch journalist in Tokyo, Japan. His website is www.danielleussink.com.