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Monday, Nov. 29, 2010

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Okinawa sticks with Nakaima

Economy trumps air base in boost for U.S.

Staff writer

NAGO, Okinawa Pref. — Okinawa voters decided to stay the course and hope for better economic times by re-electing incumbent Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, 71, to a second term Sunday night.

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One down: Incumbent Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima votes Sunday in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture. KYODO PHOTO

Although widely predicted, Nakaima's narrow victory comes as a relief to Tokyo and Washington, who feared that a victory by Nakaima's primary challenger, Yoichi Iha, 58, would have left them little room to progress in relocating the U.S. Marine base at Futenma to the Henoko district in northern Okinawa, as agreed to by Japan and the U.S. this past May.

The final results had not been tallied as of late Sunday night, but the latest results showed Nakaima holding a 20,000-vote lead that was considered insurmountable.

Iha was strongly opposed to the agreement and made the proposal to move the air base in Ginowan out of Okinawa and Japan altogether, the main thrust of his campaign.

Nakaima also opposed the agreement, which requires that a replacement facility be built off the coast of Henoko in Nago, and said he would press the central government to take the base out of the prefecture.

Nevertheless, Nakaima did not say he opposed the plan outright and had indicated until earlier this year that he would approve the Henoko facility as long as there was local agreement and as long as he thought local businesses, especially contractors, would benefit.

Despite concern in Tokyo and Washington about how the Futenma issue would affect the election, as well as recent tensions between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands spat and last week's clash on the Korean Peninsula, concern about the future of the Okinawan economy decided the election.

Local media polls showed economic revitalization was just as important as resolving Futenma. Many who voted for Nakaima said they did so not so much for his stance on Futenma but for his experience in negotiating with Tokyo for financial assistance.

2012 marks the end of a decade-long government assistance program that has poured trillions of yen into Okinawa's economy to develop new industries, and many voters believed that, since both men were already opposed to Futenma, the more important question was which one is more likely to ensure the money keeps flowing after 2012. The answer, clearly, was Nakaima.

While both officially ran as independents, Nakaima was backed by the prefectural chapter of the Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito and Your Party. Iha was backed by the Social Democratic Party, Japanese Communist Party and Kokumin Shinto (People's New Party).

The ruling Democratic Party of Japan opted not to back either candidate in the politically sensitive race.

Iha is close to Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine and enjoyed robust support in northern and central Okinawa, where there is a large concentration of U.S. bases.

Nakaima, however, has a large support base in Naha.

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The Japan Times

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