By Miwa Suzuki, AFP
TOKYO — The re-elected governor of Okinawa stood firm Monday in demanding the removal of a U.S. military base, hitting the Japanese government’s hopes of a breakthrough on an issue that has strained U.S. ties. Voters on the southern island re-elected Hirokazu Nakaima on Sunday, who promptly reiterated his call for the sprawling Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to leave the prefecture. Tokyo promised Washington it would honor an accord to move the base to a coastal location in Okinawa, but must deal with local opposition to the base on the island, which has hosted the bulk of the U.S. forces in Japan for decades. “I’ll work in the direction the people of the prefecture want,” Nakaima said before television cameras on Monday in Okinawa, where opposition to the large U.S. military presence has hardened. Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa admitted the government was “in a very tough situation” over the relocation of the base. But he argued there would be “room for negotiations” with Nakaima, who has also called for more economic development of the nation’s poorest prefecture. Prime Minister Naoto Kan plans to visit Okinawa as soon as possible for talks, Kitazawa told reporters. The election result has worsened the political plight of Kan, who has seen his support ratings plunge amid pressure over his handling of a faltering economy and territorial rows with Moscow and Beijing. Japan and the United States squabbled for much of the past year over the relocation of the base, which lies in an urban area of Okinawa, where residents have long complained about aircraft noise and the risk of accidents. The governor has the authority to block any offshore runway construction, potentially putting a major obstacle in the way of a relocation. Incumbent Nakaima, 71, beat his rival Yoichi Iha, 58, former mayor of Ginowan city, which currently hosts Futenma, in Sunday’s election.
The ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) may have seen Nakaima as more flexible on the issue compared with other candidates, as he had once accepted plans to relocate the base in the prefecture. But his comments after securing the election victory may signal further headaches for the government, Waseda University political science professor Tetsuro Kato said. Heightened regional tensions following the North Korean shelling of a South Korean island last week have also highlighted Japan’s need for U.S. security support. “The military base issue with the United States has grown bigger. Amid the North Korean and other problems, (Kan) cannot easily mention a relocation out of the country or prefecture,” Kato said. “He is faced with a very difficult choice,” Kato said. “But he has little time to ponder on diplomatic issues” from a long-term perspective as he fights for his own survival amid sagging support ratings ahead of a string of regional elections in April, said Kato. The DPJ swept into power last year under Kan’s predecessor Yukio Hatoyama, who advocated more “equal” ties with Washington and closer ties with China. Hatoyama pledged to scrap a 2006 pact to relocate the base to coastal Henoko, still on Okinawa, and instead promised to move it off the island. But he eventually backtracked on his pledge in May and stepped down in June, having managed to offend both Okinawans and the United States. Nobuteru Ishihara, secretary general of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, said the DPJ invited the current impasse. “It was Mr Hatoyama and the DPJ government who tore apart the heart” of the Okinawan people, said Ishihara, of the conservative party ousted from power in the elections last year. The Nikkei economic daily reported Monday a weekend survey showed voter support for Kan’s government tumbled to 30 percent from 40 percent a month ago. It also found support for the Liberal Democratic Party rose back to 30 percent to match that of the DPJ.