Electing a Town Mayor in Okinawa: Report from the Nago Trenches
Urashima Etsuko with an introduction and translation by Gavan McCormack
Town hall Japanese politics is rarely of much interest beyond the town, much less beyond the country. The election of a new mayor in Nago City in Okinawa on 24 January, however, is something very much out of the ordinary. It would be no exaggeration to say that no local election in postwar Japan has carried such weight.
Thirteen years ago a former mayor carried to Tokyo the verdict of this city in a local plebiscite. The people had voted clearly against the then proposal to build a base for the US Marines in the city at Henoko. Delivering the outcome, however, the mayor rejected it, declaring that Nago City was ready to accept and cooperate in the base project, and then resigned. Since then the city has lived a bitter struggle between those who represent special interests (basically construction-related groups and those who see no hope for Okinawa's depressed economy other than jobs and fees from the construction state) and those who insist on priority to economic policies geared to locally sustainable jobs in harmony with the environment.
During that 13 years, the pro-base elements, till 2009 centered in the Liberal-Democratic Party-based system that ran national, prefectural and city governments, developed a complex structure of persuasion and "buy-off" designed to neutralize, divide and defeat the anti-base citizen groups. Monies under a "Northern Districts Development" formula (tied to submission to the base project) were poured into Nago City and surrounding districts (80 billion yen in 2000 to 2009), filling the coffers of construction and public works-related groups and easing the fiscal crisis of local governments. At elections, the LDP made every effort to avoid a focus on the base issue, while stressing its ability to provide jobs and money. The resistance never gave up, however, and opinion surveys showed that support for their cause scarcely wavered.
Anti-base demonstration, December 2009.
In August 2009 the citizens of Nago saw the ousting of the old regime in the national elections as the turning of the tide in their favor. Since then the US government has persisted in extraordinary pressure on Prime Minister Hatoyama to proceed with the deals pushed through in the last days of the LDP regime by an anxious Obama administration, i.e., to construct the promised Marine base at Henoko (Nago City). In December, the Tokyo government postponed a final decision till May 2010. One of the factors to which it has said it will attach particular weight is the outcome of this election. In Washington, too, there can be no doubt that it is watched with especial interest.
Through these 13 years, "conservative" (pro-base) groups have always insisted that they can be relied on to handle economic problems better and to produce better outcomes in terms of jobs and services because they enjoy better "pipelines" of connection to the national government and to national business. The record, however, is that over the years from 2000 to 2009 dependence deepened, unemployment in Nago City rose to 12.5 per cent, well above the prefectural average and more than double the national average, jobs and incomes shrank, shops and business closed, and the economic performance of the city was significantly worse than that of others that did not "enjoy" special subsidies.
Nago's performance was among the worst not only in Okinawa but in the country. It has recently been shown that, far from there being a "benefit" attached to base-related income, towns and villages without bases in general fare much better than those with them, and those that have managed to recover parcels of base land have found that productivity and income tends to shoot up, sometimes by as much as twenty, thirty, or even forty times, after reversion from military to civilian use (figures from a study conducted by the prefecture quoted in Maedomari Hiromori, "'Kichi izon keizai' to iu shinwa" The myth of a 'base-dependent economy', Sekai, February 2010, pp. 203-209, especially p. 207).
The three opinion poll surveys on Nago City published on 19 January (Yomiuri shimbun, Okinawa Times and Asahi shimbun, and Ryukyu shimpo and Okinawa TV) found that around 70 per cent of Nago citizens do not want any new base in their city. Those wanting the Futenma base relocated somewhere else out of the prefecture were 73, 65, and 69 per cent respectively, while those ready to accept it at Henoko were 16, 16, and 9 per cent. But it is necessary to stress that the election involves multiple local issues as well as the base. It is not a referendum on the Henoko base issue, indeed the Ryukyu shimpo poll also showed, remarkably, that only a minority saw the base as the key issue of the election.
On 24 January, the people of Nago (45,000 eligible voters) have one more chance to deliver to Tokyo the message they tried and failed to deliver in 1997. The stakes are high and the struggle fierce, as Urashima Etsuko, Nago-resident and long-term citizen-activist-author, writes in this short essay, scheduled for publication immediately after the election but written several days before it. (GMcC)
Nago City is now in the throes of a mayoral election (24 January) whose outcome will affect not only the future of the city and its citizens but the future of Japan itself.
The challenger, Inamine Susumu, who stands for an end to the base problem that has held the city in its thrall now for 13 years, promises to put an end to the special interests tied up with the base that have destroyed the city's finances and to implement a city politics based on citizens, faces the incumbent, Shimabukuro Yoshikazu, who favours accepting the American base and continuing with the city politics mired in "Zenekon" general construction company special interests.
The characteristic of this election is that six Assembly members who supported Shimabukuro in the last election are now prominent in the Inamine camp. Adding to these the members of Centre and Reform camps, 14 of 26 Assembly members now support Inamine. The Shimabukuro camp feels a sense of crisis over the fact that Inamine is getting widespread support from the Democratic Party (DPJ), Social Democratic Party (SDPJ), Kokumin Shinto, Okinawa Mass, Okinawa Social Mass, Japan Communist Party (JCP), labor unions and civic organizations, together with some small and medium, and also really small, businesses worried that they may not be able to survive the dominance of the Zenekon (big contractors), and is resorting to desperate and unscrupulous electoral measures.
The string-puller is Higa Tetsuya, who as mayor in 1997 announced the acceptance of the base plan, thereby trampling on the will of the people who had just voted against it in the Nago City Plebiscite. After resigning, he has continued to run Nago City government as shadow mayor, with strong connections to the Zenekon construction companies. Today's mayor Shimabukuro is seen as Higa's puppet, and Inamine's support team says that "one of the main objectives of the election this time is to put paid to this string puller who runs Nago City."
The "get-togethers" (kondankai) held on countless occasions by the Shimabukuro camp are known as "Higa Tetsuya Get Togethers" and it is said that they involve bar crawls (get-togethers in the form of drinking sessions), golf and bowling sessions, and the distribution of expensive presents. It is also said that the Shimabukuro camp applies pressure on businesses, intimidating them so that "not even the "I" of "Inamine" should pass the lips" of employees, threatening that those that support Inamine will in future be excluded from the contract bidding process, and spreading word that "if Inamine becomes mayor, rental payments on base land will cease."
I live in the Kishi district of Henoko, along Oura Bay, which is also where Shimabukuro comes from. Thanks to 13 years of being pickled in the system of special subsidies, the heads of all 13 wards in Kishi gave up opposition to the base and switched to supporting Shimabukuro, thereby earning the fierce resentment of residents. We now struggle night and day to free ourselves from the voodoo that surrounds the base, which affects both politics and economics, and to restore city government to the people of the city.
After the election was declared on 18 January, the Shimabukuro camp, taking advantage of the provision in the election system for early voting, began a campaign to muster votes collectively, business by business, before election day. Their target is to get 10,000 votes before the 21st. From the opening day, the extraordinary scene unfolded of a steady stream of cars lining up outside the early vote polling station in front of the Nago City election commission office. People were even queuing up.
Last election (2006) 9,588 advance votes were cast, amounting to more than 30 per cent of electors. This time, there were 50 per cent more votes cast on the opening day than in 2006, so it is likely that the overall total may also be higher.
On 19 January, citizen groups supporting Inamine lodged a complaint with the Election Commission under the Public Office Election Law, arguing that the mobilization of advance votes was the antithesis of free voting.
Urashima Etsuko is an environmental activist, author, and chronicler of Okinawan people's movements of resistance against bases and hyper-development and for nature conservation. For her analysis of the previous (2006) Nago mayoral election, see: "The Nago Mayoral Election and Okinawa's Search for a Way Beyond Bases and Dependence." The present article was written on 13 January for publication in Jaanarisuto,(No 622) journal of the Japan Journalists' Association, on 25 January.
Gavan McCormack is emeritus professor at Australian National University, coordinator of The Asia-Pacific Journal and author, most recently, of Client State: Japan in the American Embrace (in English, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean).
Recommended citation: Gavan McCormack, "Electing a Town Mayor in Okinawa: Report from the Nago Trenches," The Asia-Pacific Journal, 4-1-10, January 25, 2010.