Official campaigning started Sunday for the Nago city assembly election in Okinawa Prefecture, with the planned construction there of a new U.S. military base -- to facilitate the closure of an existing airfield elsewhere in the prefecture -- high on the agenda.
The results of the Sept. 9 vote could affect Okinawa's gubernatorial election on Sept. 30, in which a candidate opposing the base relocation plan is expected to compete against a candidate backed by the central government pushing for the transfer.
(Construction site for a new U.S. base in Henoko)
In the Nago assembly election, there will be 32 candidates for 26 seats on the body. At stake is whether assembly members opposed to the relocation can continue to hold a majority following Nago's mayoral election in February that was won by a rookie who effectively tolerates the controversial plan.
Under the plan agreed by Tokyo and Washington, U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma will be moved from a crowded residential area in Ginowan to the less-populated coastal district of Henoko in Nago.
Candidates backing Mayor Taketoyo Toguchi are highlighting boosting the local economy as the main issue in the election, while those against him are voicing their opposition to the construction of the new base.
The central government considers the relocation plan as the "sole solution" to remove the dangers posed by the Futenma base while maintaining the perceived deterrence of the Japan-U.S. alliance.
But many local residents of the southern island prefecture, where the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan are located, hope the base will be moved outside Okinawa due to accidents and crimes involving U.S. military personnel.
(Protesters rally in Naha)
Mayor Toguchi, who beat the incumbent mayor opposed to the relocation plan in the election with support from the central government, has decided to offer school lunches and childcare services free of charge using a "U.S. base realignment subsidy" from the central government.
The central government provides the subsidy to municipalities hosting U.S. bases. It stopped its payment to the city of Nago after anti-base candidate Susumu Inamine was elected mayor in 2010, but the payment was resumed after Toguchi defeated Inamine in the election this year.
On Friday, the Okinawa prefectural government retracted its approval of landfill work in Nago for the relocation, as instructed by the late Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, citing illegality in the procedure. Tokyo is highly likely to take the matter to court in an attempt to confirm the validity of the prefecture's earlier approval.
(Late Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, right, and PM Shinzo Abe)
Japan and the United States reached an agreement in 1996 on the return of the land used for the Futenma base. In 1999, the Japanese government decided to relocate the base to the Henoko area.