Election of Denny Tamaki, whose father was a US marine, will create headaches for Shinzo Abe and Washington
Denny Tamaki (C) celebrates with his supporters after winning the Okinawan gubernatorial elections Photograph: Hitoshi Maeshiro/EPA
Controversial plans to relocate a major US military base in Okinawa, southern Japan, suffered a setback on Sunday after Denny Tamaki, who has vowed to block the move, was elected the island’s governor.
Tamaki, whose father was a US marine, won on an anti-base platform and vowed to fight plans to move Futenma, a sprawling US marine base located in a built-up area, to a sparsely populated site on the island’s north-east coast.
He defeated a candidate backed by the ruling coalition led by prime minister Shinzo Abe, whose government has been locked in a long battle against local residents over the future of Futenma.
Tamaki, who has a Japanese mother and has never met his father, had promised to continue the campaign to stop the base move after the death in August of his predecessor, Takeshi Onaga. Tamaki, like most Okinawans, wants the existing facility to close and for its personnel and hardware to be moved off the island altogether.
Onaga had tried to block attempts to reclaim land for the new offshore runway. He and the national government filed rival lawsuits to try to resolve the issue, with the supreme court ruling in the government’s favour in 2016.
In August, however, the Okinawan prefectural government withdrew its approval landfill work approval – which effectively halts construction work – setting up another potential legal showdown with the national government.
Opponents of the move say the new site, near the coastal village of Henoko, will destroy the area’s delicate marine ecosystem and endanger the safety of nearby residents.
Tamaki, a former radio host and opposition MP, told jubilant supporters he backed the move, adding: “The strong feelings of Takeshi Onaga, risking his life to stop the construction of any more bases, helped bring us this victory.”
Tamaki’s victory will have frustrated US military officials, who regard the Futenma relocation as essential to its ability to respond to crises in potential regional flashpoints in the South and East China seas, and to pressure North Korea into abandoning its nuclear weapons.
In return for the relocation, Washington agreed to transfer about 8,000 troops and their dependents from Okinawa to Guam, Hawaii and other locations.
The US state department congratulated Tamaki on his election. “The United States deeply values the contributions made by Okinawa to the US-Japan alliance and our two nations’ mutual security,” a spokesperson told Kyodo News.
Tamaki’s win also creates a political headache for Abe, soon after he was reelected president of the Liberal Democratic party [LDP] and put himself on course to become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.
Senior politicians from the LDP and its junior coalition partner were frequent visitors to Okinawa in the run-up to Sunday’s election, highlighting the importance they attached to the result.
The base’s relocation was agreed more than two decades ago as a way of reducing the US military footprint on the island following a surge in local opposition over the 1995 abduction and rape of a 12-year-old girl by three American servicemen.
The Futenma base, in the middle of a densely populated city of Ginowan, has attracted frequent complaints about crime, noise and the threat of aircraft accidents in an area close to homes and schools.