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Monday, April 23, 2007

BUT GINOWAN RE-ELECTS FUTENMA FOE

In Okinawa, pocketbook trumps U.S. base issue


Staff writer

GINOWAN, Okinawa Pref. -- Voters across Okinawa chose lifestyle and pocketbook issues over concerns about U.S. bases by sending former Naha assembly member Aiko Shimajiri to the Upper House on Sunday.

Meanwhile in Ginowan, where the U.S. Marine base of Futenma is located, the mayor who has long demanded that the base be relocated outside the prefecture won re-election.

In the Upper House contest, which was considered a prefecture-wide referendum on the Okinawa policies of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Shimajiri, who had the backing of the ruling parties, beat Yoshimasa Karimata, a labor leader supported by the major opposition parties.

In the weeks leading up to the election, local media surveys showed Okinawans were more concerned about the present state of the prefecture than the future of the bases. Shimajiri favors relocating Futenma off the coast of Henoko in northern Okinawa, while Karimata campaigned on moving the base outside the prefecture.

By the time campaigning ended Saturday evening, both candidates were downplaying Futenma, emphasizing instead their commitment to social welfare and education, as well as jobs and investment for the local economy.

Exit polls showed voters whose top priority was Futenma voted for Karimata. But voters who were more worried about the local economy or lifestyle issues went for Shimajiri, whose slogan of "change politics from the kitchen" was designed to give her a populist image.

"Voters understood my message, which focused on lifestyle issues and making Okinawa an easier place to live," Shimajiri said after her victory was assured.

On Futenma, however, she said only that she would continue to work with Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima and the central government to resolve the issue. She added, however, that she basically supports the governor's stance that Futenma should be closed within three years.

Shimajiri's election came as something of a relief to Abe, who campaigned hard on her behalf and promised voters he would work to make Okinawa a major gateway to the rest of Asia by prioritizing further expansion of Naha International Airport, which already has a few direct flights to Taiwan, China, and South Korea.

But if Shimajiri's victory was also a win for Abe, the mayoral election in Ginowan, home to Futenma, was shaping up to be a potential setback. Mayor Yoichi Iha beat challenger Shingi Hokama, who was supported by the ruling parties.

Like Karimata, Iha favors relocating Futenma not to Henoko but somewhere outside the prefecture. In previous meetings with U.S. and Japanese officials, he suggested that the base could easily be relocated to Guam or Hawaii.

Japan and the U.S. finalized a comprehensive base realignment agreement last May that calls for the Futenma replacement facility to be built at Henoko by 2014. Once the replacement facility is built, about 8,000 marines and their families are to be relocated to Guam.



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