TOKYO – An election Sunday for the governor of a southern Japanese island where a controversial U.S. Marine base is located is likely to cause more problems for Japan's relations with key ally the United States, as both leading candidates want the facility off the island.
Marine Air Station Futenma has been located on Okinawa island since 1945, and residents have long complained it produces aircraft noise and pollution and contributes to crime in the area.
A 2006 deal between the U.S. and Japan to relocate the base to a less crowded location on Okinawa has sunk into stalemate. Public opinion in Okinawa remains opposed to the plan. The controversy even toppled a prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, earlier this year. Hatoyama quit after failing to keep a promise to move the base off Okinawa.
The two candidates for governor have both run on a platform that opposes the relocation plan, signaling that Sunday's vote is likely to deal another blow to the already unpopular administration of Hatoyama's successor, Prime Minister Naoto Kan.
Kan, who came to power in June, is battling criticism over gaffes by his ministers, a stagnating economy and over his handling of tensions with China.
Kan has said the U.S. military presence, allowed for under a half-century U.S.-Japan alliance, is critical to deter regional security threats.
His argument may be driven home by recent tension on the Korean peninsula, in particular North Korea's artillery strike on a South Korean island on Tuesday, as well as worries over China's growing military power.
Still, Okinawans resent the U.S. military presence. About half of some 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan are on Okinawa.
"Nobody in Okinawa wants the base to stay," Noriyuki Kudeken, an Okinawan who works at a technology company.
One of the biggest outcries against the base followed the rape of a 12-year-old girl by U.S. servicemen in 1995, which set off massive protests.
The base controversy is becoming a major thorn in the U.S.-Japan alliance. Both Kan and Hatoyama are from the Democratic Party, which had promised a foreign policy less beholden to the United States before its election last year. The largely untested party trounced the long-ruling Liberal Democrats, which had smoothly engineered the alliance with the U.S. and rarely questioned what Washington wanted.
For decades, Japan has been the cornerstone of the U.S. presence in Asia, although its role may have diminished somewhat after the end of the Cold War. The U.S. routinely uses its bases in Japan for training and other international operations, and Japan shoulders much of the costs because of the alliance.
"Whichever candidate wins, there is no quick solution to the Futenma issue," Koichi Nakano, political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, said of Sunday's vote. "The Japanese government is going to be caught being unable to please either the U.S. or Okinawa."
One of the three candidates for governor, Yoichi Iha, 58, former mayor of Ginowan city, where Futenma is located, wants the base moved out of Japan entirely. He is backed by left-leaning parties, including the Communists and the Social Democrats.
"Okinawa can't prosper on the economic perks we get that are only designed to support the military bases," he said.
The other main candidate, incumbent Hirokazu Nakaima, 71, a former trade ministry bureaucrat, is less vocal on Futenma, and is open to having it moved to some place else in Japan as long as it is off Okinawa.
"We must reduce our burden from the heavy U.S. troop presence," said Nakaima, who has the backing of conservative parties, including the Liberal Democrats.
Futenma's relocation is part of a bigger plan to move more than 8,000 U.S. Marines and their 9,000 dependents off Okinawa to the U.S. Pacific island of Guam, and close Futenma. But this plan assumes the new, still unbuilt base in another part of Okinawa will be completed.
Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said Friday he will visit Okinawa soon to apologize for the false hopes Hatoyama had raised, and to win understanding for the central government's position. "Whatever the outcome of Sunday's election, we will take the result seriously," he told reporters.