Okinawa governor poll to be dominated by base issue

Incumbent Hirokazu Nakaima on the campaign trial on 11 November 2010
Image caption Hirokazu Nakaima is running neck and neck with rival Yoichi Iha

Voters in Japan's Okinawa are to elect a governor in a poll closely linked to the future of a controversial US military base relocation plan.

Incumbent Hirokazu Nakaima faces a tough challenge from Mayor Yoichi Iha.

Both say they oppose moving Futenma airbase to northern Okinawa, but Mr Iha is seen as the more staunch opponent.

The election matters because it is the governor who can approve or veto the plan, which has severely strained ties between Tokyo and Washington.

Under the half-century-old US-Japan security alliance, the US agrees to defend Japan in return for land for military bases.

Almost three-quarters of these bases are in Okinawa, where there is growing resentment over their presence.

Tight race

The row over Futenma - a US Marine Corps airbase located in the densely-packed south of the island - has been rumbling for several years.

Both the US and Japanese governments want to close it and replace it with a new offshore facility at Camp Schwab in Henoko in the less populated north, as part of a wider move that would ultimately see the transfer of 8,000 marines from Okinawa to Guam.

Image caption Many local residents in and around Henoko oppose the base relocation plan

But residents and law makers in Henoko oppose the plan, as do environmentalists who say it will have a devastating impact on marine life - including the last confirmed feeding ground of the Okinawa dugong.

Many residents also say that Futenma should be moved off Okinawa altogether - and that the fact that the island hosts so many bases is unfair.

Both Mr Nakaima, 71, and Mr Iha, 58, say Futenma should be moved off Okinawa.

But Mr Nakaima, who was elected governor in 2006, is seen as potentially more flexible - he had in the past endorsed the relocation plan.

Mr Iha, mayor of the city which hosts Futenma, has campaigned against the airbase for several years and says it must be moved off Japan entirely.

Local opinion polls suggest that the two candidates are running neck and neck. Whoever wins has an effective veto right over the relocation plan, because the Okinawa governor must sign off on it.

Earlier this week, US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Tokyo and Washington had "engaged Okinawan leaders to help them understand the importance of the US presence in Okinawa".

On the relocation plan, he said that the two governments had "produced a shared game plan on the way forward, and we will continue to work with Japan to carry it out".

Both governments say that the bases in Okinawa are vital for regional security, and the US is keen for the relocation plan to go ahead as soon as possible.

But the issue has become a serious headache for the Japanese government because of the level of local opposition.

It has already cost one prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, his job. He stepped down after flip-flopping on a promise to move Futenma off Okinawa and on to the Japanese mainland.

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