With an afterword by C. Douglas Lummis
Having written recently of the prospect for the three upcoming elections (Ginowan mayor on January 24, Okinawan Prefectural Assembly in June, and Upper House of National Diet in July),1 what follows is a comment on the outcome of the first of these, on which some misconceptions circulate widely.
The January 2016 Ginowan result must have appeared to Abe a bright New Year omen. In the long drawn out struggle between the national government and the prefecture of Okinawa over the project to reclaim a swathe of Oura Bay and construct there a military complex for the Marine Corps (to which the existing Futenma Marine Corps Air Station in Ginowan City could be transferred), 2014 had been marked by major reverses for the national government – Nago City mayor, prefectural assembly, Governorship, and all four Okinawan seats in the national election. But now the tide was turning. "Team Okinawa," as the association of nine conservative city mayors was sometimes known, had worsted Governor Onaga's "All Okinawa." The Governor himself, and his support base in the Prefectural Assembly and the two major cities of Naha and Nago, faced stepped-up pressure from the electorate.2
On the morning after the Ginowan election, Prime Minister Abe appeared on television beaming from ear to ear. His brief comment said it all: "Yokatta desu ne!" (Good wasn't it!). Later he added that he was "greatly encouraged" by the result and would "continue efforts at dialogue in order to lessen the burden on Okinawa and promote its development."3
One "leading figure in government" expressed the view that, following the electoral triumph, the government was bound to win both in the courts and on the ground at Henoko so it could afford to send appropriate signals to try to win Onaga over.
"The winds have changed since last year and Onaga must adjust his sails accordingly. If he does that, his administration can go on for a long term. Otherwise, the good ship Onaga will just sink."4
Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide gloated at the apparent victory over Okinawan Governor Onaga's "All Okinawa" project, saying that "such a term does not reflect the Okinawan reality, with 9 out of 11 towns and cities not supporting Onaga."5 If they maintained the pressure, he and Abe surely felt, Okinawa's resistance would crumble.
Abe's popularity, having hit dangerously low figures (below 40 per cent) at the height of his campaigns to enforce secrets and security legislation through the diet in the summer of 2015, was by January 2016 back to well above 50 per cent.6 Having successfully weathered the crisis of 2015, now his message was primarily economic and social, and resolutely upbeat: GDP to be raised by about one-fifth to 600 trillion yen (by some indeterminate date ten or so years ahead), the country's "one hundred million" people energised, women promoted to key roles, the birth rate decline reversed, resources poured into aged and child-care facilities, and experts mobilized in advisory committees such as the "Comprehensive Project on Japan's Beauty." As he let fly his "new three arrows" at such targets, ahead lay the prospect of wrenching control of the Okinawan parliament from the Onaga "All Okinawa" forces in June, triumphing in the House of Councillors election in July, and then, during the year or so after that for which he could expect to retain office, moving on to his grand objective: constitutional revision to turn Japan into a "normal" country, with its own military able to be despatched anywhere in the world. If so, Abe could leave a mark on modern Japan greater than any post-war leader. He had good reason to smile on the morning of January 25.
Ginowan City Mayoral Election, January 24, 2016
Sakima Atsushi: 27,668
Shimura Keiichiro: 21,811
Voting rate: 68.72% (up 4.82% over previous election)
Sakima, the incumbent since 2012, was backed by the government and the LDP and New Komeito party organizations, and Shimura by the opposition political parties and Governor Onaga Takeshi's "All Okinawa" organization. The conventional interpretation of the outcome was that the victory was as much one for Abe and his government as for Sakima, and that the project to create a mega military complex for the US Marine Corps at Henoko in Northern Okinawa and to transfer the existing Futenma base to it could be expected to move ahead more smoothly. 7
Governor Onaga had campaigned often and passionately for Shimura, saying, "We need to show our will (of not accepting the base relocation plan within the prefecture) to the government, which disregards the wishes of Okinawans, by winning this mayoral election." The outcome was unquestionably a serious blow, but he did not waver. Onaga declared, "The Okinawans against the base relocation plan will not be silenced. The situation under which Okinawa as a whole is forced to bear the burden of the excessive concentration of U.S. bases has not changed."8
But was the election simply a victory for Abe and Sakima and a defeat for Onaga and Shimura? The peculiarity of the election is evident simply from contrasting the core pledge of the two candidates, who used almost identical language to say:9
Sakima: "I will not allow Futenma to become a permanent fixture. I will take steps to secure a suspension of operations at Futenma by February 2019 bringing its closure and reversion forward as soon as is humanly possible so as to get rid of the danger it embodies."
Shimura: "I will seek a suspension of Futenma operations within five years and bring forward its closure and reversion as soon as is humanly possible, without allowing any new base [to be built]."
Both agreed that the Futenma situation was intolerable. Seventy years of occupation and discrimination against Okinawa was far too long. Sakima claimed he would get it back in three, and Shimura in five years. Where they differed was in Shimura's final phrase – "without allowing any new base [to be built]." Shimura failed because he was unable to shift the focus on to this issue.
Probing the Ginowan Mind
Apart from the bare figures indicative of a decisive Sakima victory, there were two exit polls conducted by media groups.10 Their findings are summarized here.
Exit Poll 1
- Do you support the shifting of Futenma airfield to Henoko?
Yes: 33.2% (of whom 92.5% voted for Sakima, 7.5% for Shimura)
No: 56% (of whom 22.9% for Sakima, 77.1% voted for Shimura)
- Do you support the way the Abe government is handling the move of Futenma airfield to Henoko?
No response: 11.3%
- What was the major factor in casting your vote?
Futenma airfield shift: 55%
Education policy: 12.7%
Economic and employment policy: 7.9%
Health and Welfare 4.1%
Urban revitalization: 3.1%
Others or No response 17%
- What political party do you support?
New Komeito: 2.5%
No response: 8.3%
Exit Poll 2
- What was the main issue for you in voting:
Futenma shift: 48% (of whom for Sakima 30%, for Shimura 70%)
Candidate's record and accomplishments: 19% (of whom for Sakima 90%, for Shimura 10%
Economic and welfare policy: 19% (of whom for Sakima 71%, for Shimura 29%)
- Do you support the transfer of Futenma base to Henoko
Support: 34% (of whom for Sakima 93%, for Shimura 7%)
Not Support: 57% (of whom for Sakima 24%, for Shimura 76%)
No response: 10%
The Futenma marine base that for 70 years, uninvited, had occupied the core lands of the city, serving US military interests from the Western Pacific and East Asia to Africa and subjecting citizens to constant danger, noise and nuisance, was naturally uppermost in people's minds.
Both polls made clear that the major factor for them as they went in record numbers to the polls was indeed that of securing the removal of Futenma from the city (55 per cent and 48 per cent respectively). Furthermore, of those who saw the Futenma problem as the key issue, the second of the two polls found that 70 per cent voted for Shimura and only 30 per cent for Sakima. This suggests that Sakima's support, while not insignificant among voters emphasizing Futenma return, was matched by his qualifications on other grounds too.
As for the encouragement that the Prime Minister and Chief Cabinet Secretary took from the outcome, Exit Poll 1 found that only 33.2 per cent were in favour of the planned shift of Futenma Marine airfield to Henoko, and 56 per cent opposed it. And lest that left any room for doubt, Exit Poll 1 found that 54.9 per cent of Ginowan citizens did not support the way the Abe government was handling the matter, and Exit Poll 2 that only 34 per cent of people supported the Henoko transfer while 57 per cent opposed it.11 It is true that 56 or 57 per cent opposition to the Futenma transfer to Henoko was lower than the 70 or even 80 per cent opposition figure shown in previous surveys, but the government could take little comfort from that because, as Exit Poll 1 showed, by a significant majority (35.6 per cent to 20.8 per cent) Ginowan citizens preferred immediate and unconditional closure and reversion of Futenma to substitution.12 That is an option that neither candidate offered. The constituency was thus even further from the Tokyo government's stance than the position advanced by either candidate.
In short, a clear majority of people in the city that Abe and Suga believed had fallen in line actually opposed the base transfer project and the way the government was handling it.
Already twenty years have passed since 1996 when Tokyo and Washington first promised Futenma return. It was then to occur "within 5 to 7 years," i.e., by 2003. That date was gradually pushed back, till in December 2013 Prime Minister Abe promised Governor Nakaima that it would occur by February 2019, that is, in roughly five years. It was that promise to which Sakima in his campaign referred when he pledged reversion (cessation of flights) by February 2019. Already by then, however, the date for completion and handover of the new facility had been set at the inter-governmental (US-Japan) level as "no earlier than 2022."13 And on the eve of the Ginowan election the Marine Corps' "Marine Aviation Plan 2016" pushed it further back to fiscal year 2025 (October 2024-September 2025).14 Given the well-demonstrated ability of the protest movement to delay and obstruct construction of the new base, that could even prove a conservative estimate.
The Sakima-Abe pledge was thus at odds with both inter-governmental agreements and Marine Corps plans. The core pledge on which Ginowan citizens relied when they returned Sakima as mayor was one that was never meant to be taken seriously, and they would have to wait at best not three but 10 years for closure of Futenma.
Apart from his show of commitment to early return of Futenma, what worked overwhelmingly in Sakima's favour (as the exit polls make clear) was his four-year track record as mayor. He was popular, accessible, optimistic, relatively young (51 at time of election) and, on the questions of economy, education, and welfare policy, could point to a record that was decisively superior to that of the little known Shimura (who for 35 years had been a prefectural bureaucrat). Sakima also won support among families by implementing policies such as free school lunches and free child medical care, both made possible at least in part by a four-fold increase in the central government's subsidy to the city.15
If a Futenma reversion by 2019 was the core Sakima pledge, and his record in office gave him general credibility, the vague promise of a "Disneyland" for the city was undoubtedly a secondary factor. On December 2, 2015, Sakima, accompanied by Okinawa Minister Shimajiri Aiko, approached the Oriental Land Company (the Disneyland corporation) to make his pitch for such a facility for his city. On December 8, he sought the assistance of the government and Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide who promised that "as the government, we will do whatever we can to help." On December 11, Sakima whipped up enthusiasm on the part of an audience of 400 female supporters to shout with him "Disney, Disney, Disney, All Together Let's Do it!"16 However, it soon became clear that the idea had not been floated or discussed in any Ginowan City forum, there was no plan and (as the Oriental Land Corporation revealed) there had been no negotiations.17 The idea that anything resembling the fabulously successful Tokyo Disneyland, opened in 1983 adjacent to the nation's major communications hubs and visited in recent years by around 17 million people in a single year,18 could be located at the relatively remote and inconvenient Ginowan, however effective as a campaign ploy, was fanciful in the extreme. As excitement began to spread around the unlikely idea, the government was obliged to make clear that it was nothing but "the activities of some individual politicians."19 The Disneyland promise was as empty as that of "Futenma return by 2019."
Other campaign matters, and other expressions of support for Sakima by the national government, were better grounded and designed to create the impression of early Futenma return. In mid-2014, the Marine Corps transferred 15 KC130 aerial refuelling aircraft from Futenma to Iwakuni (in Yamaguchi prefecture), accomplishing a measure of "burden reduction." In 2015, a 51-hectare parcel of land (West Futenma) was returned from Camp Foster to the Ginowan city administration.20 Once this site was cleared of pollution and possible unexploded ordinance (which might take years), it was to become the location for an "International Medical Research Centre" and a relocated Futenma High School. The much-hyped return created a sense of anticipation that Futenma itself might be next on the agenda. Sakima seemed a man who could get things done.
One other factor in topping the scales in Sakima's favour was the decision by the prefectural branch of New Komeito (the political wing of the Buddhist Soka Gakkai) to support him. Its numbers may not be so large, but their votes are carefully concentrated in accord with the national strategy of the coalition government. In 2014, the party strongly opposed the switch by then Governor Nakaima Hirokazu from a "no Futenma replacement within Okinawa" to a "Henoko as Futenma replacement" stance and many party members therefore voted against him in the gubernatorial election. By the time of the Ginowan election, the national policy of close coordination between New Komeito and the LDP had been restored, but that did not necessarily mean support for the Henoko project or for Abe-endorsed candidates in other elections. In fact, New Komeito appeared to be sticking to its stance of opposition to the Henoko project.21
U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma seen from Ginowan City. (Photo: Mainichi)
The Abe government expressed delight at the outcome as if it were a vote for its Henoko plans. Much of the media, national and international, followed this interpretation, seeing it as an Abe victory resulting from a pro-government, pro-Henoko shift on the part of the Okinawan people. The record, as this paper argues, is that this was not at all the case.
The Ginowan result did indeed, however, signify a shift in the long-running confrontation between the national government and the people and representative institutions of Okinawa, from "Advantage All Okinawa" of 2014-15 to "Advantage Abe." The rebound already noted in Abe government support figures in early 2016 coincided with the Ginowan result and presumably was in part attributable to it, suggesting that the "Abe advantage" is likely to flow through to government-supported candidates in the forthcoming prefectural and national elections. The victory will also be used by the government to warrant the coastguard and riot police using increased levels of violence in the ongoing confrontation with anti-base citizen protesters at Henoko and on Oura Bay.
However, despite that use, what the people of Ginowan decided in the January 2016 election was above all else: get the Marine Corps out of Futenma, urgently and quickly. They said nothing about building a substitute for it whether at Henoko or anywhere else. Sakima did not so much as utter the word "Henoko" during his campaign.
It is true, however, that Governor Onaga and his "All Okinawa" cause suffered a reverse, especially severe because the Governor had identified himself closely with the Shimura campaign. There was speculation in the wake of the election that Onaga might see the writing on the wall and seek to do a deal, as his predecessor, Governor Nakaima, had done in December 2013, abandoning opposition to Henoko construction in return for promises of support for Okinawan "development." It was at this time that, as noted above, a member of government hinted at trying to win the Governor over.
There were indeed pointers towards some such rapprochement. Within days of the trouncing at Ginowan, Onaga entered upon a series of closed-door meetings with Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga and Okinawa Minister Shimajiri, his presumed "arch-enemies" on base-related matters. Onaga, supplicant rather than protester, made no reference to the unprecedented crisis in state-prefectural relations or to Henoko. His focus appears to have been fixed firmly on prefectural development, linking "reduction of the base burden" (the term favoured by the Tokyo government) with economic development and talking of Okinawa as a "front runner."22 Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga described the mood of the talks as "extremely warm and friendly."23
Those who doubted that Onaga, lifelong conservative, LDP member and supporter of the US military relationship and base system, was really committed to doing "everything in my power" to stop Henoko, pointed not only to these intimate and friendly exchanges but to his refusal to take any step to cancel the license for rock and coral crushing in Oura Bay. That license, issued in August 2014 by his predecessor, Governor Nakaima, was surely as "flawed" as the general reclamation license issued in December 2013 that Onaga cancelled in October 2015. When 49 concrete blocks were dropped into the Bay in January 2015, and the damage to coral was clear in photographs taken by naturalists and journalists, Onaga ordered the Okinawa Defense Bureau to stop (February 16) but declined to formally cancel the permit. In October, despite strong urgings from Okinawan civil society and nature protection organizations, he inexplicably stated that, "unfortunately it is not possible to make a judgement as to destruction of coral." Today, as the Okinawa Defense Bureau prepares to drop 286 concrete blocks (102 of them weighing 57 tons each) into Oura Bay to carry the reclamation project forward, even though it is clear that immediate legal action on the Governor's part would at very least greatly complicate and delay the government's rush to construct, Onaga continues to refrain from formal legal intervention.24
As of early 2016, with three court actions pending or underway between prefecture and state, and with tense confrontation continuing at the construction site between state power and protesting citizens, it is hard to imagine where ground for compromise might be found between the two sides. Yet that is precisely what Chief Justice Tamiya Toshiro of the Fukuoka High Court ordered on January 29. Urging the parties to "conciliate" (wakai) their dispute, he offered two proposals, one for a "fundamental solution" and one for a "provisional solution."25 The courtroom greeted this improbable suggestion with shocked silence.
The shock spread when his proposals were revealed: a "provisional solution" that involved the Government of Japan withdrawing its suit and suspending site works while negotiations were reopened with the prefecture, and a "fundamental solution" under which the Governor would withdraw his cancellation order [of October 2015] in return for which the national government would open negotiations with the United States towards either returning the base to Japan or turning it into a joint civil-military facility at some time "within the next thirty years.26
The "provisional" solution was no more than a suggestion to return to the table from which both parties had walked away less than four months earlier, after a month of "intensive negotiations" in August-September 2015. The "fundamental" solution implied, without spelling it out, that the contested base actually be built, merely suggesting that at some time prior to the year 2045 the Government of Japan ask the United States to either return it or convert it to a joint civil-military facility. This was a return to an idea that had briefly held sway under former Governor Inamine Keiichi in 1999, but it was a substantial regression from it. Inamine had then agreed to a Futenma Replacement facility to be built offshore from Henoko, for joint civil-military use, and subject to a strict time limit of 15 years. This was, he said, "the limit the people of Okinawa should be asked to tolerate."27 That idea collapsed under the weight of its various contradictions, not least the opposition of the Pentagon, and the current plan, for a very different design with conditions removed, was adopted in the "Roadmap" Agreement of 2006. Now, however, the time limit was 30 years of exclusive Marine Corps usage, followed by reversion or conversion to joint civil-military usage if such an idea suited the US government of that time.
The judge's proposal will undoubtedly be scrutinized, but it seemed calculated not so much to appease as to outrage Okinawans. There was nothing "conciliatory" about it. It was a thinly disguised suggestion that Okinawa surrender. It beggars belief that Governor Onaga could agree to withdraw his cancellation order in return for a seat at the negotiating table and the vague possibility that the government of the United States, having enjoyed the base for up to 30 years, might then either give it back to Japan or agree to it becoming a joint civil-military facility.
As for the temporary reclamation works suspension that Judge Tamiya suggested, almost simultaneously with the court's suggestions, Japan's Department of Defense revealed that, for its own reasons and quite unconnected with "conciliation," it was ordering just such a suspension till "after the spring." But it did so as part of a "polishing" of its construction and engineering plans, from a position of perceived advantage following the Ginowan election. With works suspended, it would concentrate on disposing of the prefecture's legal objections so as to clear the way to accelerated construction in due course. 28 With Onaga again engaged in discussions with the national government on the general question of base realignment, government officials were evidently delighted at the way their designs were proceeding. 29
The Department of Defense postponement of site works, the High Court advice, the resumption of national-prefectural talks, all followed and were influenced by the Ginowan election. Okinawans could be forgiven for feeling that they were facing a concerted push by the Japanese state and its instruments to finally dispose of their protests.
Okinawan Governor's legal team, Henoko Proxy Execution Hearing, Fukuoka High Court (Naha Branch), January 8, 2016 (Photo: Okinawa Times)
As for Ginowan City, the election resolved little. The two key campaign promises, on Futenma return and Disneyland attraction, were hollow. There would be no Futenma return within three (or five) years and no Ginowan City Disneyland ever. Despite the Ginowan election result, and the surprising twist in the Naha courtroom, the fundamental contradictions remain unresolved, and likely to intensify. The good ship Onaga sails into very choppy waters.
Afterword: The Henoko Protest Holds the Key
For people watching the Ginowan City mayoral election from afar, it may appear as a disaster for the forces in Okinawa opposing the construction of a new US Marine Corps base at Henoko in northern Okinawa. As Gavan McCormack shows in detail, while the result was a disappointment, it was not a disaster. First, both candidates stated their opposition to the US Marine Air Facility Futenma remaining in the midst of the densely populated city, and pledged to get rid of it. (A candidate who favored keeping the base in the city would stand no chance). What they differed on was the timing and method by which it would be possible to get rid of it. At the same time, while for the politicians and many people watching from afar it appeared as a single-issue election (yes or no on new base construction), for the voters living in Ginowan City it was not. As exit polls showed, the overwhelming majority of the voters still oppose the Henoko project, but many of those who oppose it voted for Sakima (the incumbent candidate supported by the Abe Shinzo Administration) for other reasons – his economic policies, his educational policies or – as voters everywhere do – his general charm. And as McCormack points out, during the campaign Sakima, while vowing to get the US Marine Air Facility out of Ginowan City in three years, was careful never to allow the word "Henoko" to slip past his lips, so no doubt many who voted for him did not see themselves as voting for a clearly pro-Henoko candidate.
Thus Sakima did not reduce the anti-Henoko force in Ginowan City; rather he split it. But while this was a skilful election strategy, as a statement of post-election policy, it is going to give him trouble. Put bluntly, with his "shut it down in three years" promise, he may have painted himself into a corner. There is no way on earth that the Henoko Base or any other conceivable replacement facility, can be ready to receive the 1st Marine Air Wing in three years. Some now say ten years, but even that is on the assumption that the protest movement, which is delaying construction with sit-ins and other tactics, gives up and goes home. Others speak of twenty years, though that is probably a casual guess. The protesters themselves say never.
So consider the position Sakima has got himself into. An increasing number of people inside and outside Okinawa are working to persuade people in mainland Japan to respond to Governor Onaga's slogan, "equal distribution", take responsibility for the wildly unfair distribution of bases (of all US bases in Japan, 74% are located in tiny Okinawa) and organize groups to lobby for acceptance of the Futenma Air Facility in their own prefecture, while others lobby to have it removed entirely from Japan.
While the possibility of some prefecture making that offer may sound unlikely, it is the only feasible way that Sakima could keep his three-year promise. ("Unconditional removal" is a vagary, which if unpacked turns out to mean the same thing: removal to some other part of Japan or elsewhere outside of Japan.)
The anti-base protesters understand this well. On 2 February I took the Shimagurumi Kaigi bus that takes protesters from Naha to Henoko each day. In an upbeat mood, the people passed around the mike and traded explanations as to why the result was no reason for depression. The fellow sitting across the aisle from me said, "There's a saying, 'From defeat, victory!' I think we should give the Mayor all the support we can. 'Yes, absolutely, three years. Not a day more. We'll help you keep your promise, Mr. Mayor. You can count on us: three years!'" This was greeted with laughter and applause. At the sit-in site I learned that outside Futenma base the people have put up a countdown sign announcing the number of days left, and knocking off one each day: 1095, 1094, 1093 and so on. That's real pressure.
I also learned that they are racheting up the pressure on Camp Schwab, the base within which the new air facility is to be built. Until now they have been blocking only construction-related vehicles, and letting military vehicles through. The leadership, responding to pressure from below, has decided to abandon this rule, and to begin blockading US military vehicles as well. It seems the Marine Commanders don't like this at all. Instead of their usual practice of keeping a low profile, they have been coming out in force: MP police cars, observers on the hill behind the fence, people filming the action. Rumor has it that they are furious with the Japanese Riot Police for allowing this to happen. There is also talk of expanding the sit-in to the US Air Force's jewel of the Western Pacific, Kadena Airbase. If that happens, you can be sure that the Air Force will be as furious with the Marines as the Marines are with the Riot Police.
As a great American sage once put it, it ain't over 'til it's over.
Gavan McCormack is an emeritus professor of Australian National University, editor of the Asia-Pacific Journal, and author of many texts on modern and contemporary East Asian History, including Resistant Islands: Okinawa Confronts Japan and the United States, Boulder: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012 (co-authored with Satoko Oka Norimatsu). His work is widely published in Japanese, Korean and Chinese, as well as English. For some of his recent essays (other than those accessible at this site), see "Okinawa as sacrificial victim," Le Monde Diplomatique, October 2015, pp. 6-7, and "Chauvinist nationalism in Japan's schizophrenic state," in Leo Panitch and Greg Albo, eds, The Politics of the Right, Socialist Register 2016, London, The Merlin Press, 2015, pp. 231-249.
Douglas Lummis, a former US Marine stationed on Okinawa and a present resident of Okinawa and a lecturer at Okinawa International University, is the author of Radical Democracy and other books in Japanese and English. A Japan Focus contributing editor, he formerly taught at Tsuda College. - See more here.
Recommended citation: Gavan McCormack with an afterword by C. Douglas Lummis, "The Ginowan Mayoral – Okinawan Currents and Counter-Currents", The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 14, Issue 3, No. 1.