Photo/IllutrationLandfill work began March 25 on a 33-hectare segment for construction of a U.S. military base off the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The outcome of the Lower House by-election in Okinawa Prefecture on April 21 is a reminder of local voters’ indomitable will to refuse to give in to the government’s strong-arm efforts to push through a new U.S. base project it has vehemently opposed.

In the Okinawa No. 3 constituency, Tomohiro Yara, a freelance journalist backed by opposition parties, defeated Aiko Shimajiri, a former state minister for Okinawa and Northern Territories affairs, who was backed by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Yara ran on a campaign focused on opposition to the work to reclaim land off the Henoko district in the Okinawan city of Nago to build a new U.S. military facility to take over the functions of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

The Futenma base is located in the middle of a densely populated residential area in Ginowan, also in the prefecture.

In the election to choose the prefecture’s new governor last autumn, the candidate backed by the Abe administration, former Ginowan Mayor Atsushi Sakima, was criticized for avoiding clarifying his position on the issue.

In contrast, Shimajiri expressed her support for the base plan as a necessary step to eliminate the danger posed by the Futenma air base to the local community and appealed to voters by stressing her agenda to promote the development of the local economy. But her campaign failed to win broad support from local voters.

The election results are hardly surprising.

In the February prefectural referendum on the Henoko base plan, more than 70 percent of the votes were cast against the land reclamation work. But the Abe administration turned a deaf ear to the voices of people in Okinawa and started pouring dirt and sand into additional areas in the sea off Henoko in late March.

In an Asahi Shimbun survey of voters in the No. 3 constituency, 68 percent of the respondents said they were taking a dim view of the administration’s stance toward the issue.

Abe dared not visit Okinawa to support Shimajiri’s campaign even though it was an important election before the vital summer Upper House poll.

It is hard to fathom the administration’s real views about the outlook of the Henoko base plan, which has been dogged by so many thorny problems.

It has been found that the seafloor in some parts of the reclamation area is “as soft as mayonnaise” to a depth of dozens of meters. Is the sea reclamation plan really workable? When will it be completed and how much taxpayer money will it cost?

The administration has offered few specific answers to these and other key questions. What is clear is only the administration’s strategy for forging ahead with the controversial base plan, which is focused on carrying out the work as fast as possible to accumulate faits accomplis.

But Henoko is not the only Okinawa base issue that has been plagued by a wide gap between the government’s policy and the will of the local people.

The Okinawa No. 3 constituency contains areas covered by the U.S. military’s Northern Training Area as well as the cities of Nago and Okinawa. At the end of 2016, 4,000 hectares, or about half, of the training area were returned to Japan.

The Abe administration stresses this as an important step in easing the burden of the heavy U.S. military presence in the prefecture. But a new helipad has been created in exchange for the return of land.

Local residents in areas around the helipad have been suffering from dreadful noise and safety concerns.

People in Okinawa have learned from such examples that a plan to build new military facilities in exchange for scrapping an existing one, like the Henoko base plan, can never be an actual reduction in the burden they bear.

Since he took office in October, Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki has been calling on the government to suspend the Henoko reclamation work and have talks with the prefectural government on the issue.

But the Abe administration has maintained its obdurate stance. The meeting to reduce the burden on Okinawa among the central government, the prefectural government and the Ginowan mayor held on April 10, the first such three-party talks in two years and nine months, produced no notable progress.

Yara, who won the by-election, became familiar with issues concerning U.S. military bases in the prefecture while working as a local newspaper reporter and a researcher. He has made specific proposals to reform the operations of the U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa and transfer certain functions of the Futenma air base.

The government should pay sincere attention to such proposals as the first step toward finally weaning itself from its blind fixation on the view that Henoko is the only option.

--The Asahi Shimbun, April 22