Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki won a second four-year-term following Sunday's gubernatorial election, obtaining a renewed mandate for his efforts to discontinue a plan to relocate a U.S. base within the island prefecture.
Opposition-backed Tamaki defeated former Ginowan Mayor Atsushi Sakima, 58, who was supported by the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito. Sakima ran on a platform of pressing ahead with moving U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the densely populated city of Ginowan to the Henoko coastal area of Nago.
Reviving the all-important tourism industry was also a focus of the election with the Okinawan economy having taken a heavy battering from travel restrictions put in place during the coronavirus pandemic.
"People in Okinawa have not wavered in their wishes (of halting the plan) even a bit," Tamaki told reporters, adding that he will call on the central government to suspend the relocation. The 62-year-old anti-base incumbent was backed by the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and smaller opposition parties.
Okinawa still hosts the bulk of U.S. bases in the country, over 50 years after it was returned to Japan in 1972 from postwar U.S. administration. The Japanese government places strategic importance on Okinawa due to its proximity to potential geopolitical flashpoints such as Taiwan, which has come under increasing pressure from a more aggressive China.
The latest verdict on the plan comes after the prefecture rejected the transfer in gubernatorial elections in 2014 and 2018 as well as a referendum in 2019.
Among the island's 1.16 million voters, there was a turnout of 57.92 percent, down 5.32 percentage points from the previous gubernatorial election, according to the local election board.
The victory by the governor deals a blow to efforts by the government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to press ahead with the decades-old relocation plan and comes after the ruling LDP was entangled by party members' links with the controversial Unification Church.
Sakima himself has admitted to attending a gathering of an organization affiliated with the church, formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, which has been criticized for being engaged in antisocial activities.
The religious group has become the source of controversy since former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot on July 8 during an election campaign speech. Abe's assailant said he harbored a grudge against the group and believed that the former prime minister had ties with it.
While the election was a three-way race also involving former lower house member and former LDP lawmaker Mikio Shimoji, 61, it effectively became a rerun of the 2018 election in which Tamaki defeated Sakima.
"I have said to the Okinawan people that there is no choice but to accept relocation but that did not gain support," Sakima told reporters.
Tamaki has demanded that the base be moved outside of the prefecture or the country entirely, and his victory means the legal battle over the transfer plan between the central and Okinawa governments will only intensify.
The Kishida government and the U.S. administration maintain the current plan, first agreed upon between the two countries in 1996, is the only solution that ensures both deterrence under the long-standing bilateral security alliance and removal of the dangers posed by the base.
LDP election chief Hiroshi Moriyama told reporters the plan to relocate the base to Henoko is set in stone, adding, "We will strive to gain the understanding of the Okinawa people."
In the Ginowan mayoral election held the same day, ruling-coalition backed incumbent Masanori Matsugawa, 68, who supports the base relocation to Henoko, defeated opposition-backed Harumasa Nakanishi, 61, head of the federation of prefectural high schools' parent-teacher associations, who opposes the relocation plan.
Moriyama said he is "not sure" whether the Unification Church controversy had any impact on the election.
The LDP revealed on Thursday around half of its lawmakers had connections with the church.
The group, founded in South Korea in 1954 by the late Sun Myung Moon and labeled a cult by critics, is known for its mass weddings and "spiritual sales," in which people are talked into buying jars and other items for exorbitant prices.
The following is a chronology of key events related to the planned relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station in Ginowan in Japan's southern island prefecture of Okinawa -- the major issue in Sunday's gubernatorial election.
September 1995 -- Three U.S. servicemen rape local schoolgirl in Okinawa, fueling anger among local residents.
April 1996 -- Japan, United States agree on return of Futenma base within five to seven years.
December 1999 -- Japanese government endorses plan to move Futenma to coastal area of Henoko in Nago.
September 2009 -- Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama vows to move Futenma out of Okinawa. Later, he gives up pledge.
March 2013 -- Government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe submits application for landfill to build replacement facility for Futenma base in Nago to Okinawa prefectural government.
December -- Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima approves land reclamation to build replacement facility.
November 2014 -- Takeshi Onaga, former Naha mayor and opponent of relocation plan, is elected governor of Okinawa.
October 2015 -- Onaga revokes Nakaima's approval for reclamation work, pointing to legal defects in his decision.
July 2016 -- Government sues Okinawa over Onaga's failure to comply with order to rescind his revocation.
December -- Supreme Court rules in favor of government, leading to resumption of base construction.
July 2017 -- Okinawa files lawsuit seeking halt of relocation work.
March 2018 -- Okinawa District Court rejects prefectural government's lawsuit.
August -- Onaga dies. Okinawa retracts reclamation work approval.
September -- Denny Tamaki, former opposition lawmaker opposed to relocation, is elected governor of Okinawa.
October -- Land minister Keiichi Ishii announces invalidation of Okinawa's retraction of approval.
November -- Okinawa files complaint about invalidation to state dispute-settlement panel.
December -- Government starts full-fledged landfill work in Henoko.
February 2019 -- Over 70 percent of voters reject Futenma relocation plan in prefectural referendum.
April 2020 -- Government submits application to Okinawa of design changes to reinforce soft ground toward reclamation project.
November 2021 -- Tamaki rejects design change application.
April 2022 -- Land ministry revokes rejection and orders Okinawa to approve design changes.
August -- Okinawa sues government's overriding actions as illegal.
May 15 -- Okinawa marks 50 years since reversion from U.S. rule.
Sept. 11 -- Tamaki secures second term as Okinawa governor.