The surprise victory comes amidst ongoing protests by locals against the US’ mammoth military presence on the island, which activists say has long contributed to social and environmental degradation
Danny Tamaki, the son of a US Marine and a Japanese mother has been victorious in an election for Okinawa’s governorship, running on a platform opposing US bases on the island.
Mr Tamaki secured 55.1% of the vote in Sunday’s hotly contested election, shoving the Tokyo-backed Atsushi Sakima out of the picture.
Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, showed images of jubilation as Okinawans danced and celebrated what they widely perceive as the defeat of a candidate, Sakima, who would have failed to challenge Tokyo and Washington over the presence and expansion of US military bases on the island. Despite making up only 0.6% of Japan’s total land mass, Okinawa hosts 62% of the US military presence there.
Okinawa’s local government has long been at odds with Tokyo, including with incumbent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, over the presence of US military forces stationed on Okinawa, which Tokyo argues is vital to Japanese national security.
Futenma Air base
A particular point of contention is the planned relocation of the US Marine’s Futenma air base, a sprawling complex with a 148 foot runway which is home to approximately 3,000 marines. The baseis located square in the centre of Ginowan city, which has a population of roughly 93,661 people. The base’s close proximity to such a large civilian population, which includes tightly packed schools, parks and residential homes, reportedly led then US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2003 to declare it “the most dangerous base in the world.”
Rumsfeld’s concerns were vindicated by an incident in 2017, which saw the window of a Futenma-based Marine helicopter fall off mid-flight, injuring a child on a school playing field below.
After years of sustained protests by the locals, including regular lobbying trips to the US by the island’s former governor, Takeshi Onaga, Washington and Tokyo agreed in 2005 to relocate the Futenma base to a less populated area in the North of Okinawa, called Henoko. Yet, many on the pacific island argue that they have been lumbered, for far too long, with the burden of hosting such a behemoth US force. As a result, locals would rather see the US presence extirpated entirely, rather than simply moved to another location on the island.
Throughout his campaign for the governorship, Mr Tamaki staunchly promised to oppose and refuse the relocation of Futenma, and instead to have it closed entirely. After his win, Tamaki sent out a Tweet in which he said that the “fight is just beginning.”
There are about 50,000 US serviceman stationed in Japan, with a large bulk of them in Okinawa, which many have pointed to as the source of ongoing social and environmental issues.
According to reports, since 1998, there have been over 415 toxic spills and dumping from the military facilities. Much of this waste has seeped into Okinawa’s natural ecology, damaging plant life and reducing the diversity of species found there.
US serviceman have also played a role in exacerbating already strained social tensions between local Okinawans and the US military presence. A number of marines have been indicted over the years for alcohol-induced disorderly behaviour, as well as the rape, and even murder, of local citizens. In 2017, one such soldier, Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, 33, confessed to the rape and murder of a 20-year-old woman. He was subsequently sentenced to life in prison. One case in particular that haunts the collective Okinawan psyche is that of a 1995 incident in which three US serviceman abducted, beat and raped a 12-year-old girl.
Such grim occurrences have only served to compound concerns about the continued presence of US forces in Okinawa.
Washington has maintained a military force on the island since the defeat of Japan at the end of World War II in 1945. As part of the country’s surrender terms with the allies, it was not allowed to form its own offensive military force, but would instead receive ‘defense’ from the US in exchange for hosting bases. The marine presence has remained ever since.