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JAPAN: Okinawa Poll Results Boost for US Military Ties

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, Nov 21 2006 (IPS) - The victory of a former bureaucrat over a socialist female candidate in Sunday’s closely contested gubernatorial election in Okinawa, host to major United States military bases in Japan, has boosted the government’s plans to strengthen its military ties with Washington.

But, say analysts, it may still not mean smooth sailing for Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who has made the bilateral realignment plan a cornerstone of his foreign policy.

”The election result in Okinawa is certainly a boost to Prime Minister Abe who is spearheading an active role for Japan in foreign diplomacy with the U.S. But whether this means that Okinawa will now easily embrace a beefed up U.S.-Japan military alliance is still to be seen,” said Tetsuo Maeda, a defence analyst at Tokyo International University.

Japan, supported by the U.S., is taking a tough stance on North Korea, putting economic blockades apart from United Nations sanctions imposed on Pyongyang for conducting nuclear weapons test.

Abe has won high approval ratings – more than 70 percent- for his tough stand among the people who deeply resent the abduction of Japanese nationals by Pyongyang as well as its ambitious nuclear programme.

Okinawa and its surrounding sub-tropical islands remain a key platform for Abe. The island’s population has long fought against the U.S. military and naval bases, intensified since the prefecture gained independence from U.S. occupation in 1974.

But the gubernatorial election results have now paved the way for flexibility on a controversial plan to move the U.S. Marine Corps Futemma base within the prefecture, under an agreement signed between Tokyo and Washington in May.

The plan also includes a new landfill site along the island’s coastline by 2014 as part of a military realignment.

Abe, who expressed relief at the results, was quick to applaud the winner on Sunday in Hanoi. ‘’We need to go forward with the realignment plan with the reduction of the burden of Okinawa residents in mind,” he told reporters at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, last week.

The contest between Hirokazu Nakaima, backed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and Keiko Itokazu, a staunch campaigner against the new base, was billed by activists as a milestone in the future of Japan’s goal of emerging as a regional military power.

Anti-base groups, that supported Itokazu, billed the election as important for Japan-Asia relations. They argued that the new realignment plans will only worsen the already cold East Asia regional ties following visits to Yasukuni Shrine by former leader Junichiro Koizumi who paid respects to the Japanese war dead, that included ‘Class-A’ criminals responsible for the past colonisation of much of Asia.

”People are torn between worrying about the bases that have created so many social problems and wanting central government subsidies,” said Yasushiro Miyagi, an activist, vowing to continue the fight.

Maeda explained to IPS that the newly elected governor, Nakaima, in his speech yesterday, did not publicly say yes to the new scheme to build the new runway for an airfield on existing land in Nago, Okinawa prefecture.

”Nakaima is aware of the public’s discontent over hosting U.S. bases and will tread cautiously. This will mean the central government will not be able to rush through plans to expand Japan’s military capabilities,” said Maeda.

Experts also point out that by selecting Nakaima, the message by the electorate was a call for economic revival over military issues, marking a step away from the traditional issue that has consumed Okinawa for decades.

”By voting for Nakaima, voters showed they wanted their immediate problems such as unemployment to be dealt with quickly,” said Fumio Matsuo, a political writer.

Nakaima’s election pledge was to boost tourism and use the land from the relocation of Futenma base for new development projects.

Matsuo noted that Nakaima won in areas such as Naha, the capital of Okinawa, where major businesses are established.

The ‘Asahi’ newspaper, Japan’s second largest, pointed out Monday, that voter turnout, despite hitting over 63 percent was not strong among the younger generation, an indication, that experts contend, does indicate the base issue is not as strong a concern as before.

”After years of fighting with the central government, the new election is a sign of fatigue in Okinawa,” Matsuo told IPS.

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