Okinawa governor election to determine fate of US Futenma air base

Osprey aircrafts at the US Marine's Camp Futenma in a crowded urban area of Ginowan, Okinawa prefecture. -- PHOTO: AFP
Osprey aircrafts at the US Marine's Camp Futenma in a crowded urban area of Ginowan, Okinawa prefecture. -- PHOTO: AFP

NAHA, Japan (AFP) - The Japanese prefecture of Okinawa will on Sunday elect a new governor in a vote that will determine the long-stalled relocation of a US military base, with the outcome potentially presenting a headache for premier Shinzo Abe.

Opinion polls this week showed the vote in the prefecture in Japan's far south could see victory for anti-base candidate Takeshi Onaga, in a neck-and-neck battle with incumbent Hirokazu Nakaima - who has the backing of Abe and his party.

A win for Onaga would be a significant blow to the central government because the governor has the power to veto the landfill work needed for a new base to be built.

That would leave Abe facing either overruling locally-elected officials - risking charges of authoritarianism - or reverting to the cajoling and persuading of recent years, which would not be popular with Washington.

It would also take some of the wind out of Abe's sails just days before he is expected to announce a snap general election.

Nakaima stands accused of betraying the semi-tropical island chain after striking a deal with Tokyo last year to greenlight a plan to move the US Marines' Futenma Air Station from a crowded urban area to a sparsely populated coastal district some 50 kilometres to the north.

In what critics said amounted to a bribe, Abe pledged a huge cash injection to the local economy in return for Nakaima reversing years of opposition to the move, which was first mooted in the 1990s.

Deadlock on the move has frustrated the Americans and proved a thorn in the side of successive Japanese governments.

Okinawa is home to more than half of the 47,000 US service personnel stationed in Japan, and strategically key to the US-Japan security alliance at a time of simmering tensions in East Asia.

But there is widespread local hostility to the military presence, with complaints over noise, the risk of accidents and a perception that the presence of so many young servicemen is a source of crime.

The current base sits in a residential district whose inhabitants bitterly recall a 2004 military helicopter crash in the grounds of a local university, and who resent the sound of roaring engines metres from their backyards.

Nakaima claims that the current relocation plan is the only realistic option in order to eliminate the danger of the Futenma base.

The dispute taps into a vein of historical resentment. Previously an independent kingdom, Okinawa was annexed by Japan in the 19th century and was under US rule for almost three decades after World War II.

On the campaign trail Saturday, Onaga told AFP: "These bases are just a nuisance. If they weren't here, Okinawa would be a lot more developed. Please tell America: the bases are in the way."