Voters in Nago, Japan, on Okinawa island chose a new mayor Sunday who opposes the relocation of a noisy U.S. military air base to his town.
TOKYO — In a small-town election that may have a big impact on U.S. ties with Japan, voters in Nago on Okinawa island chose a new mayor Sunday who opposes the relocation of a noisy U.S. military air base to his town.
Susumu Inamine, who said during his campaign that he did not want the air station constructed in Nago, defeated incumbent Mayor Yoshikazu Shimabukuro, who has long supported hosting the base as a way of increasing jobs and investment.
The United States and Japan agreed four years ago to move the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, now located in a dense urban area in the center of Okinawa, to Nago, a town of 60,000 in the thinly populated northern part of the tropical island. It was to have been built on landfill along a pristine coast on the edge of the town.
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But to the exasperation of the Obama administration, that deal was put on hold last fall after the election of a new government led by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who says Japan has been too passive in its dealings with the United States. Hatoyama has suggested that the base should be moved off Okinawa or out of Japan altogether — and has also said that the outcome of the mayoral vote in Nago would be a factor in his government’s final decision, which he has promised to make by May.
Inamine’s anti-base campaign attracted support from environmentalists and from local members of Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan and its coalition partners, as well as from the Japanese Communist Party.
Nago’s mayor avoided mention of the air base in his campaign, saying its relocation was not a matter that could or should be decided by him or residents of his city.
That view is shared by U.S. Marine Corps commanders, who view the Futenma air station as a linchpin in the continuous training and on-call mobility of the Third Marine Expeditionary Force, which is based on Okinawa and is the only such U.S. force in the Far East.
“National-security policy cannot be made in towns and villages,” Lt. Gen. Keith Stalder, commander of Marine forces in the Pacific, said last week.
Relocating the Marine air station to Nago is a key part of a $26 billion deal between Japan and the United States to transfer 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam and turn over valuable tracts of land to people on the island. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last fall that the deal probably would collapse if the air station does not move to Nago.
Construction of the air station in Nago would require a massive landfill in a picturesque stretch of waters now used by fishermen and snorkelers. It is opposed by environmentalists who have filed a lawsuit saying it would destroy habitat of the rare dugong, a manatee-like sea mammal. Surrounded by 92,000 people in Ginowan city, Futenma has annoyed its neighbors with the comings and going of combat helicopters and transport aircraft.
In 2004, a helicopter based at the airfield crashed into the administration building of a nearby college. There were no deaths, but the incident angered local residents and led to the 2006 agreement to move the air base to Nago.
The governor of Okinawa has shown qualified support for the base-relocation plan.