Photo/IllutrationSusumu Inamine, left, and Taketoyo Toguchi, give speeches on Jan. 28, the first day of the Nago mayoral election campaign. (Photos by Kengo Hiyoshi and Go Katono)

NAGO, Okinawa Prefecture--The mayoral election campaign officially started on Jan. 28 in what has become an epicenter of the battle between the central government and anti-U.S. military base protesters.

Voting will be held on Feb. 4, and the outcome of the two-man race is expected to have long-term implications on the course of a Tokyo-led project to build a new U.S. military base in the city, as well as on the Okinawa gubernatorial election in autumn.

It will be the first Nago mayoral election since preliminary work started in spring last year to build the partly offshore base in the city to take over the functions of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, also in the prefecture.

Mayor Susumu Inamine, 72, who is seeking his third four-year term as an independent, has maintained his opposition to the project. He has strong backing from Governor Takeshi Onaga, a staunch opponent of U.S. military facilities in the prefecture, as well as a number of political parties.

Looking to oust Inamine is Taketoyo Toguchi, 56, a former member of the Nago municipal assembly, who is supported by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, Komeito, a junior partner in the ruling coalition, and Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party).

Inamine underlined the importance of continuing to oppose the base project on the first day of the campaign.

“I have worked hard by defying mounting pressure from the central government,” the incumbent said in front of his campaign office. “We should not let the movement end. Affairs concerning Nago should be decided by people in Nago.”

Onaga traveled to Nago to bolster Inamine’s campaign.

“If a new base is built in Nago, we cannot envision a picture of how to bring Nago to prosperity,” the governor said.

Toguchi criticized Inamine for failing to promote tourism and take other measures to reinvigorate Nago’s economy.

“He is preoccupied with a single issue and has not addressed the question of how to improve the livelihood of locals,” Toguchi said.

Opposition to the base project is part of a larger movement demanding a reduction in Okinawa’s overwhelming burden of hosting U.S. military facilities in Japan.

Protests have been held on a daily basis in the Nago area to oppose construction of the base. Onaga, infuriated by accidents and crimes related to U.S. personnel in the prefecture, has taken legal action against the central government in his attempts to scrap the project.

The central government has repeatedly said the new U.S. base is vital for Japan’s defense and the Japan-U.S. security alliance.

However, Toguchi has barely touched on the issue since he announced his candidacy.

“I am paying close attention to the outcome of a lawsuit” between the central government and Okinawa Prefecture, Toguchi has said.

The central government needs approval from the Nago mayor on such matters as changing the flow of a local river in connection with the project.