Clutching a makeshift white flag, Tetsuei Tamayose picked his way between fly-covered corpses of Japanese soldiers to surrender to U.S. troops on Okinawa in July 1945. He was 11 years old and destitute.
Tamayose’s family, left homeless by a bombing raid, spent months wandering the island and were near starvation as one of World War II’s bloodiest battles gave way to a near three-decade U.S. occupation of Okinawa. The pacifism of many like Tamayose, 80, whose lives were marked by the war could deal Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a blow in a regional vote here this weekend before a potential national election next month.
In a Nov. 16 ballot for governor, Tamayose will back frontrunner Takeshi Onaga, the former mayor of Naha, who wants to prevent the relocation of a U.S. Marine base within Okinawa, a plan supported by the Abe-backed incumbent. Blocking the base move is likely to anger the U.S. -- Japan’s only formal military ally -- just as Abe seeks to bolster ties amid a territorial dispute with China.
“The Japanese government is trying to force this on Okinawa,” the white-haired Tamayose said, as he sipped iced coffee in a fast-food restaurant in the prefectural capital of Naha. “They are not listening to the voices of Okinawans.”
A win by Onaga would affect the alliance, said Yuki Tatsumi, senior associate for East Asia at the Stimson Center in Washington. “Japan is already making things difficult for the Marines operationally” even as it expects them to play a role in fending off threats from China in the East China Sea, she said.
Despite accounting for less than 1 percent of Japan’s land mass and just over 1 percent of its population, Okinawa hosts more than two-thirds of the 38,000 U.S. troops based in Japan. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, located in the middle of the densely populated city of Ginowan, has been earmarked for closure since 1996 as it poses the greatest safety risk to local residents.
Naha City mayor Takeshi Onaga speaks during a press conference to announce his candidacy for Okinawa Prefecture Governor in Naha, Okinawa, Japan, on Sept. 13, 2014.
People near the base complain of crime, pollution, accidents and noise. Anger reached a peak in 1995 when a 12-year-old girl was gang-raped by three U.S. servicemen.
Okinawa serves as a strategic gateway to Asia as the U.S. seeks to monitor China’s growing military muscle. Closer to Shanghai than Tokyo, the islands offered a vital launching point for U.S. troops during the Korean and Vietnam wars. The main island lies only about 400 kilometers (250 miles) from the East China Sea islands disputed by Japan and China.
Polls show more than 80 percent of Okinawans oppose the construction of replacement runways in a land reclamation project at a U.S. base in the north of the main Okinawan island.
Protesters have had tents at the Henoko site since 2004, and since August have taken to boats and kayaks to thwart surveys of the ocean floor. They have repeatedly been blocked by coast guard vessels. On a recent visit, about 40 demonstrators were waving placards in blazing heat along a roadside near the site, attracting beeps of support from passing drivers.
The need to assuage local anger while maintaining the U.S. alliance has perplexed consecutive governments. An about-face on the relocation led to the 2010 resignation of then prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, nine months after a landslide election victory.
“The national government cannot push ahead if there’s a situation where there could be bloodshed,” Abe’s predecessor Yoshihiko Noda said last month. “If the governor is leading the opposition movement, it will be very tough.”
Onaga’s election would follow last year’s win by Susumu Inamine, another opponent of the runway construction, as mayor of Nago, the city where the new facility is planned. It would also be an inauspicious start to the campaign for a general election that Abe is likely to call for next month.
In a bid to reduce local tension, Japan has persuaded the Marines to shift 15 Lockheed Martin Corp. KC-130 refueling planes and personnel from Futenma to another base on the main Japanese island of Honshu, about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) away.
Protesters show their opposition to the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the sea off Nago, Okinawa, Japan, on April 19, 2014.
Abe said at a joint press conference with U.S. President Barack Obama in April that “steady progress” was being made on the base relocation.
Onaga’s rivals in the election include incumbent Hirokazu Nakaima, who announced his acceptance of the new facility in December last year after Abe promised an annual 300 billion yen ($2.6 billion) in subsidies for Okinawa until 2021. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel welcomed the move.
“That really hurt the pride of the Uchinanchu,” Onaga said in an interview at his campaign headquarters on Oct. 31, using the Okinawan word for the island’s people. “It sends the mistaken message to the mainland and the U.S. that Okinawa will accept the bases for money.”
Former postal reform minister Mikio Shimoji, who wants a referendum on the base, and pacifist folk singer-turned politician Shokichi Kina have also thrown their hats into the ring. In response to Okinawan opposition to the relocation, Abe in September tasked Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga with an additional post of minister in charge of reducing the military burden on the island.
“The U.S.-Japan alliance is an extremely important pact for Japan’s security,” said Vice Governor Kurayoshi Takara, who is supporting Nakaima’s re-election campaign. “It gave Japan the stability to develop its economy. That’s the view of the Nakaima administration.”
Even so, Takara says he shares the feeling that Okinawans have been treated unfairly, which is widespread even among those too young to remember the war or the U.S. occupation of the islands until 1972.
“If the U.S. alliance is necessary, the bases should be spread evenly throughout the country,” said Fusako Nishie, a 38-year-old hotel worker and one of more than 13,000 people who gathered to support Onaga at a baseball stadium in Naha on Nov. 1. “I don’t see why they all have to be in Okinawa.”