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Okinawa: Two Elections


Naha, Okinawa.

The 2010 Governor’s election in Okinawa was a game changer.  Up to then the pattern of elections here had been, a progressive candidate clearly opposed to the US military bases on the island, vs. a conservative candidate who was not positively in favor of them, but took the attitude, if we can’t get rid of them we might as well make a little money off them.

In 2010 the issue on the table was not all the bases, but what to do with the US Marine Air Station at Futenma, in the middle of densely populated Ginowan City.  In 1996 the US and Japanese Governments had announced that they would close it down, but only on the condition that the 1st Marine Air Wing, which it houses, be moved to a new base to be built offshore from the fishing village of Henoko, in the less populated northern part of Okinawa.  This construction has been fiercely opposed by Okinawans.  Pacifists argue that the base should be abolished altogether; ecologists and fisherpeople point out that construction would be devastating to the coral-rich Oura Bay, habitat to the endangered sea-mammal the dugong; Okinawans generally feel that the Government’s insistence that the base stay on their island amounts to discriminatory treatment.  Okinawa comprises 0.6% of Japanese territory, but just under 75% of all US bases in Japan are located here.  More and more people are using the word “colonialism” to describe this.  Thus after the 1996 announcement the Okinawans, by means of rallies, demonstrations, lawsuits, petitions, sit-ins, and direct action civil disobedience, have so far prevented construction from beginning.

In 2010 the incumbent conservative Governor Nakaima Hirokazu [family name first, following East Asian practice], who had been elected on the What the Hell can you do about it? ticket, was advised that the electorate had changed, and that he could not be reelected unless he changed his position.  This he did, saying that now he favored moving the Futenma base to mainland Japan.  This enabled him to pick up the support of people who were not ready to oppose all the US bases, but who resented the unequal treatment.

The result was an election in which both the progressive and the conservative candidates opposed moving the Futenma base to a different location within Okinawa.  There was a third candidate, from the crackpot Happiness Realization Party, who supported the US-Japan plan to move the base to Henoko.  The progressive and conservative candidates between them got 97% of the votes; the only party that supported the US-Japan plan got a little over 2%.  It’s not often that you see that kind of agreement in a free election. In that election the US-Japan plan was supported only by the crazies. Governor Nakaima, campaigning on the slogan Move the Base to the Mainland, was re-elected.

For three years after that, Governor Nakaima put on a pretty convincing performance.  Again and again Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers, Defense Ministers came to his office trying to persuade him to accept the Henoko base plan, and again and again he sent them packing, sometimes after only a few minutes. (One of them, I think it was a Foreign Minister – these fellows have been changing like a game of musical chairs in recent years so it’s hard to remember – was caught on TV looking at his watch to see how much time he had got, as the Governor walked out of the room.) During that period not only the governor, but many Okinawan Liberal Democratic Party politicians, defying their Party headquarters in Tokyo, came out against the base plan. People began to talk about an All Okinawa Anti-Base Movement.  Increasingly anti-base activists, instead of appealing for sympathy, were calling the plan “impossible”.

Last year the Tokyo Government, after completing a survey of Oura Bay, wrote up an environmental impact report and handed it to the Governor for his approval, without which they cannot legally begin reclamation work in the Bay.  He set up a committee, and they fiddled with it for the better part of a year.  Many people believed, I among them, that Nakaima would reject it in the end: why would anyone want to put their name on a document that claims that dumping several millions of tons (or whatever the amount is) of dirt and junk into a coral bay will have no detrimental effect on the environment?  But at the end of December last year, he approved it, which opened the way for construction to begin. Most people were stunned, though there was also a minor chorus of I Told You So.  In exchange the Governor claimed to have gotten some major gifts and concessions from Tokyo, a mess of pottage that turned out to be mostly promises that won’t be kept and aid money that Okinawa Prefecture was entitled to anyway.  It continues to amaze me that a person presented with the opportunity to become a hero whose name would be passed on in Okinawan culture for generations, would instead choose to be remembered as a liar and a turncoat. There is a strong movement calling for his resignation or, failing that, his recall.

It seemed that Okinawa was in danger of falling into despondency and resignation.  But there was one more test coming up.  Just a couple of weeks after Nakaima’s collapse, on January 19, there was the election for Mayor of Nago City, of which Henoko is an administrative part.  The incumbent Mayor, Inamine Susumu, had been elected on the public promise that he would oppose new base construction in the city. Two candidates declared against him, both supporting base construction.  For the Abe Shinzo Government, this was a must-win election.  First they sent down a gang of top Party and Government officials to persuade one of the pro-base candidates to stand down – a very unusual case of interference in local politics (of course, they were successful).  Then when campaigning began they sent down Party and Government superstars to join in the electioneering.  A lot of dubious money is said to have been passed around.  Nago is the home of several of the construction companies which would likely get the reclaiming contracts, and which also have political clout in the city.  Presumably a lot of pressure was put by those and other companies on their employees.  In the last days of the campaign the Liberal Democraic Party’s Secretary General Ishiba suddenly announced that if the pro-base candidate won Nago would be rewarded with 50 billion yen (about $500 million) in extra aid.  It was the town of Nago, population 62000, vs. the state of Japan, and to the last moment no one knew which side would win.

Inamine won, by a healthy margin.  Okinawa’s temptation to despondency ended after just a few weeks.  This has got to be remembered as one of the great election victories in the history of democracy.  Nago would not be bought; the voters took the aid offer as an insult.  Immediately after the election, Inamine announced that he would use his powers as Mayor, not to appeal to Tokyo to reconsider their plan, but positively to prevent it from going forward.  Concretely, he said he would prohibit any construction-related use of roads, harbors or rivers that are under the City’s administration, and that he would not participate in any negotiations that presuppose base construction. Inamine, incidentally, is not a professional politician or an ex-movement activist.  Before he ran for Mayor he was an official in the City’s Board of Education. To this day he goes out every morning to work as a traffic safety volunteer at a corner where kids cross the street on the way to school.  There is a good lesson in politics here:  You don’t need charisma; all you need is to say “no”. It’s also a lesson in popular sovereignty.  The Tokyo Government says, We will decide.  The people of Nago reply, No, we have decided.  Like they say, it takes a village.

The Abe Shinzo Government has painted itself into a corner.  They continue to tell the US Government, and the world, that they will build the new base at Henoko anyway.  They say they will “persuade” Inamine, but it looks like that can’t be done.  Will they rewrite the law, to take away the Mayor’s powers?  Will they send in the Riot Police, or maybe the Self-Defence Forces?  Will they revive the method used by the US military to get land for bases right after the Battle of Okinawa, the method known here as “bulldozers and rifles”?  Of course all these are possible, but they will be made less possible the more the Nago situation comes to the attention of people around the world.  That’s why it’s a good thing that some overseas supporters of the Okinawa anti-base movement, beginning with Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick who visited Okinawa last year, after the election drafted a letter of solidarity that has been signed by over 100 writers, scholars, movie makers and others.  This has evolved into a general petition campaign on the internet.  I have no illusion that submitting this petition to President Obama and Prime Minister Abe will have any effect on their consciences.  What it will do is send a message to the people of Nago that they are not isolated.  And by making clear to both heads of state that the whole world is watching it will make it difficult for them to use dirty tricks or violence to get their way in Nago.

The petition can be accessed at

Douglas Lummis is a political scientist living in Okinawa and the author of Radical Democracy. Lummis can be reached at


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