OSAKA -- Less than two weeks remain until a local election that may influence both the planned relocation of the Futenma military base and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's effort to secure a two-thirds majority in this summer's Upper House election.
The Jan. 24 mayoral election in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, pits incumbent Atsushi Sakima, 51, against challenger Keiichiro Shimura, 62, a former prefectural official.
Sakima has the support of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, while Shimura is the favorite of the opposition parties, and is backed by Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga.
Dominating the issues is the question of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and whether it should be moved to northern Okinawa as agreed by Tokyo and Washington or whether it should be relocated out of Japan, as Onaga and a majority of Okinawans prefer.
Sakima's main campaign strategy has been to argue for its closure and the return of its land.
"The U.S. and Japanese governments have taken a strong position of absolutely not letting the Futenma base remain stuck in Ginowan, and we have to make sure this moves forward," he said during a recent debate with Shimura.
Shimura, however, has made it clear that he will press the central government to get Futenma out of Okinawa -- and that he opposes the Henoko plan.
"What's important is to deal with the danger posed by the presence of Futenma by getting rid of the MV-22 Ospreys and seeking the closure and return of Futenma without approving relocation within Okinawa," he said.
The race could be quite close. In the 2012 election, Sakima defeated a challenger backed by all of the opposition parties by just 900 votes out of nearly 45,000 cast. A win by Shimura would mean that the governor's office and the mayoral seats in Nago, where Henoko is located, and Ginowan would be in the hands of leaders opposed to the Henoko plan.
That, in turn, could create political problems for Abe and the local LDP chapter, especially Upper House member Aiko Shimajiri, Abe's minister of state for Okinawa and Northern Territories affairs. She is up for re-election in this summer's Upper House election at a time when Abe needs every LDP ally he can keep to achieve the supermajority needed for his goal of constitutional revision.
At a Lower House Budget Committee meeting Tuesday, Abe insisted that the Ginowan election will have no effect on the plan to move Futenma to Henoko.
However, late last week, the government announced it would suspend construction on the seabed in Henoko Bay until after the election to help Sakima's chances.
With no solution to the standoff between Okinawa and the central government over Henoko in sight, there are efforts in Okinawa to check with other prefectures about hosting Futenma.
A poll by the Okinawa Times last month, however, showed that only Akita and Shiga prefectures might have even vague interest in discussing that possibility if sounded out by the central government.
Akita Gov. Norihisa Satake said only that he would make an inquiry as to what hosting the base would involve, if approached, while Shiga Gov. Taizo Mikazuki said his decision would depend on the details and the purpose of the request.