In an election that will have historic implications for the realignment of United States facilities in Okinawa, Taketoyo Toguchi, a five-term city assembly member, defeated the two-term incumbent to become mayor of Nago City.
The losing mayor had taken an anti-base stand, even as Nago had been identified as the relocation site of the functions of Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Futenma.
Toguchi’s victory is expected to lead to an improvement in the central government’s relations with the prefecture. His candidacy was fully supported by the ruling coalition, comprising the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, as well as the conservative Nippon Ishin no Kai.
His 72-year old opponent was endorsed by the current Okinawa governor, Takeshi Onaga, who is also up for re-election this year. He also had the support of the local media, universities and other educational organizations, labor unions, peace groups, and anti-base parties, such as the Japan Communist Party, Social Democratic Party, Democratic Party, Liberal Party, and the Constitutional Democratic Party.
This anti-base united front, the self-described “All Okinawa,” is anything but united or representative of all 1.2 million voters in the prefecture. They did, however, win Nanjo City’s mayoral contest in January. It was a surprising victory in that the southern city is doing well economically and not troubled directly by frictions associated with the presence of US bases as no such base exists there.
Indeed, the defeated Nanjo City mayor, the leader of the conservative forces opposing the current governor of Okinawa, was seen as Onaga’s primary challenger in the gubernatorial election to be held in November or December. Thus, he was effectively eliminated from the race.
As the defeat in Nanjo was a surprise and disappointment to the conservatives, so was the unexpected loss in the Nago election a crushing experience for the leftists. To be honest, this writer was even a bit amazed that the conservatives could pull off a victory. Conservatives anywhere, such as the Republicans in the United States, tend to fight more among themselves than for the principles they say they believe in, and, as a result, generally fail to create the synergy necessary to win convincingly in an election.
This is especially true in Okinawa, where local dynamics and bad blood tend to work against cooperation. In previous Okinawa elections, the leftists have also battled among themselves, costing them elections prior to Onaga becoming governor in 2014. And so, collectively, both sides have come to learn that victory goes to whichever side is able to demonstrate solidarity and leverage that cooperation.
For the past four years—in the Nago mayoral and city assembly elections, in the Okinawa gubernatorial race, in the Lower and Upper house contests in Okinawa, and the recent election in Nanjo—the leftists have tended to demonstrate greater solidarity and better messaging. (There were other reasons for their victories, too, including different tactics and examples of electoral campaign law violations I personally witnessed, but that is not the subject of this commentary.)
This time, however, voters were increasingly tired of the anti-base rhetoric, feeling the mayor focused all his energy on that issue at the expense of other issues facing Okinawa’s sixth largest city. Voters wanted change. In my opinion, this was one of the most important reasons for Toguchi’s victory; it was not necessarily an endorsement or embracing of the central government’s policies.
In another Okinawa election, voters were satisfied with the teamwork between the Ginowan City government, which hosts MCAS Futenma and has a very good relationship with the bases, and the central government. Happy with the progress being made, they voted in their mayor, Atsushi Sakima (then 51 years old), for a second term in January 2016.
Importantly, many young people—who represent the future of Okinawa—voted for Sakima in 2016 and did so as well for Toguchi this time. According to exit polls, the 56-year-old Toguchi had the majority in all age groups from 18 to 59 by wide margins, losing only among those of the wartime or early postwar generation.
One thing that led to this awakening by the younger generation is their disappointment in the traditional print and television media. Younger people are getting their news elsewhere. They distrust the editorial biases and, yes, “fake news,” as reported by the two local Okinawa newspapers that have a near monopoly on the market (98%). (Related Story: ‘Yaeyama Nippo’ Provides Counterpoint to Anti-military Newspapers in Okinawa)
Perhaps the biggest event that awoke residents—young and old alike—was the false reporting and lies told by a prominent activist in Okinawa who illegally entered Camp Schwab in February 2015 and fought with Japanese guards assigned to protect the base as part of the US military’s provost marshall’s office. After two weeks of intentionally provocative articles (the reporters had been there on the scene, camped with the protesters and took their side in the story alleging “unlawful detention”) and a member of parliament from Okinawa using these tales to question the Prime Minister and his Cabinet about the February 22 incident, I decided to share the surveillance video with a sympathetic, alternative media so that the truth would become known.
Immediately, residents in Okinawa and throughout Japan woke up to what was actually going on in Okinawa: violence and illegal actions committed by some of the more extreme protesters, misreporting by the media, and collaboration among leftist academics, politicians, and activists to undermine education within the prefecture and freedom of thought, speech, and assembly. The result in the form of a conservative, or at least an anti- anti-base awakening, showed itself in this election.
It is worth noting that with Toguchi’s victory, the alignment of forces in favor of the relocation of MCAS Futenma to Camp Schwab has changed. Going into the election, of the four main domestic players, the Government of Japan and Ginowan City were the only two in favor of the base relocation as planned. With the change in city administration in Nago, it is now only the prefectural government which opposes. This is the first time in 15 years that both Ginowan and Nago have been on the same page together with the government of Japan.
As an electoral strategy, Toguchi did not directly address the Futenma replacement facility to be built at Camp Schwab, on the eastern side of his city in the village Henoko. While this was smart politically, it was unfortunate and underscores some of the weaknesses of the conservatives in Okinawa—the lack of courage, conviction, and confidence. I happen to think the FRF at Schwab is flawed beyond hope for dozens of reasons and have long opposed it, and provided detailed, vetted, alternative solutions. However, if the ruling coalition is so sure that “Henoko is the best plan,” they should openly and positively discuss it, presenting its merits in a fair, objective, and transparent setting. That they do not—or cannot—just invites distrust and speculation.
The GOJ’s occasional highhandedness, too, has undermined its efforts over the now more-than-22 years this base relocation has been in the making (or, in other words, longer than it took to achieve the reversion of Okinawa itself). During this time, more than 30 defense ministers, 30 foreign ministers, 30 ministers responsible for Okinawa, etc., have come and gone, while in Okinawa there have been just four governors during the same period.
If Toguchi’s victory is an indicator, there may be a new governor by the end of this year. The numbers suggest this could be the case. Currently, only Naha (population 315,954) and Nanjo are cities headed by allies of the governor. The rest of the leadership in Okinawa is opposed to the incumbent, which makes the “All Okinawa” claim a farce. The next three largest cities after Naha make up more than Naha and Nanjo combined. If you include the remainder of the 41 cities, towns, and villages that comprise Okinawa Prefecture, it suggests that, if the conservative forces are able to work together, the central government makes progress in its policies, and the voters become increasingly aware of the local media efforts to misinform them, then Onaga’s days as governor are numbered.
But there are more than a dozen elections between now and then, and the ruling coalition must take each one seriously. If they do not, they might find themselves with an unexpected defeat like they experienced unnecessarily in January in Nanjo. The coalition was focused on Nago and took their eyes off the ball, something we are taught not to do in sports when catching or trapping a ball, for example. They forgot that important lesson but came back with an impressive hit that got them on to first base in Nago.
Maintaining the momentum will be important. Even more vital, however, is to seek the maximum amount of sincerity, transparency, accountability, and trust with the people of the prefecture, because no policy can succeed without public understanding and support.
Robert D. Eldridge, PhD, is the former political advisor to the United States Marine Corps in Japan.