TOKYO — Voters in Okinawa are expected to re-elect their opposition-backed governor on Sunday, turning their backs on Japan’s central government and national ruling party despite being on the front lines should conflict with China erupt over Taiwan.
Rising tensions in the nearby waters have become a concern for the tropical prefecture, which is far closer to Taiwan than to Tokyo. China this summer launched five missiles into the sea close to Okinawa – and within Japan’s exclusive economic zone – during military exercises after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has pushed for increased defense spending to counter China, but media polls have shown voters likely to re-elect Denny Tamaki, who is supported by a broad coalition of opposition parties.
The LDP backs Atsushi Sakima, a former mayor. Tamaki defeated him in 2018 by 396,632 votes to 316,458, partly by calling for the large Futenma U.S. air base to be moved outside the prefecture.
Sakima favors the central government’s plan to move the base from a crowded urban area to Okinawa’s more remote Henoko district, while a third candidate, former national lawmaker Mikio Shimoji, wants it re-purposed as a shared military and commercial airport.
The U.S. military is a hot-button issue in Okinawa, which saw some of the bloodiest fighting in World War Two and has long resented the burden of hosting the majority of U.S. troops in Japan on facilities that take up 5% of Okinawa’s land. Polls show 55% of Okinawa voters oppose moving the Futenma base to Henoko.
But with Okinawa’s economy hit hard by slumping tourism due to the coronavirus pandemic, Tamaki’s campaign is shifting attention to economic policies, which Sakima has long emphasized, and which could give him a slight boost.
“The situation is a bit fluid as a result of this,” said Airo Hino, a political science professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University.
Candidates backed by the LDP have also won four recent mayoral elections in Okinawa, signaling a potential shift.
“I think the Taiwan situation may be having a bit of an impact even in Okinawa,” Hino said. (Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Chang-Ran Kim and William Mallard)