The Upper House Elections and Future of Okinawa

Robert D. Eldridge

 When examining election results and providing analysis on a particular election, there are often a number of factors to weigh—voter turnout, party support, international and domestic politics, local sentiment, and the candidates’ popularity, etc.


 There are also two ways of looking at elections. Was the victory of one candidate over another the result of the winning candidate’s efforts, or the result of the poor showing of the losing candidate?

 If this question were phrased in the context of the July 10 Upper House election in Okinawa, it would go: “Did the challenger, Iha Yōichi, win the election in his own right, or did Shimajiri Aiko, the incumbent, simply lose it?”

 If I were asked this question, I would say the answer was the latter—Shimajiri lost it more than Iha won it. Some may feel this is too strong a criticism, but as someone who has closely observed and written about Okinawan politics and policy over the past 20 years, I cannot help but describe it this way.

 This is not to say she is not a good person—she is—or that she did not try hard as a politician and cabinet minister—she did—or that there were not accusations of election violations by the Iha camp—there were many.

 It means that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s style of postponing difficult decisions and failing to face reality got it in trouble in Okinawa. She was warned in the fall of 2014 by knowledgeable people that she faced defeat but chose not to address the challenges head on. Similarly, the Abe Shinzō administration was warned in 2013 that it faced defeat in the Okinawa gubernatorial election in November 2014, but it chose to ignore that advice.

 Readers know the results: not only did the incumbent governor, supported by the LDP and running for a third term, was heavily defeated, and in December that year, the four Lower House candidates representing the ruling LDP were all defeated. And now Shimajiri, first elected in 2007, and re-elected in 2010, was defeated by a huge margin (100,000 votes).

 This means that all four Lower House members and both Upper House members (the other being Itokazu Keiko of the Okinawa Social Masses Party) elected in their own right are all from the opposition parties and anti-base in their stances, and especially against the move of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the waters off of Camp Schwab as proposed in the original Special Action Committee on Okinawa recommendations of 1996 and reconfirmed in the 2006 realignment agreement. This has never happened in post-reversion history before.

 The above six do not include those who were elected through proportional representation seats, but they are considered somewhat “second class” in that they were defeated in their own constituencies. Even with these additional members, implementation of central government policies for Okinawa, particularly as they concern basing matters, may be even more challenging henceforth, especially with a vocal and volatile Iha working in conjunction with his fellow ideologues.

 These ideologues used anti-base sentiment to their advantage, including the people’s rally held in late June, a couple of days before the campaign officially started. Indeed, the rally took on the atmosphere of a political convention to confirm the degree of cohesion of the united front rather than a gathering to remember the victim of the murder in May.

 Nevertheless, the rape and murder of a local Okinawan woman allegedly by a U.S. citizen and former Marine working at Kadena Air Base did not majorly affect the outcome of the election. Internal LDP of Shimajiri and Iha showed the latter leading by a 2-1 margin from the outset in March when it became clear Iha would be the candidate of the anti-base united front known by its misnomer, “All Okinawa.”

 Iha’s supporters took advantage of Shimajiri’s not being from Okinawa originally and her closeness to Prime Minister Abe (who is seen as a pro-defense reactionary), running a negative campaign against her with unattributable, mean posters misportraying her as being willing to send voters’ children and grandchildren to war.

 Iha has historically been under-rated by the conservatives, with devastating consequences. I first met him about twenty years ago when he was a member of the prefectural assembly. I saw him as a future gubernatorial candidate and so mentioned this to a member of the LDP who dismissed my comment by saying that Iha was still serving his term in the assembly. To me, however, I could see him giving up his seat to run. This he eventually did, but for the Ginowan mayoral election, which he won.

 He subsequently gave up his office as mayor to run in the 2010 gubernatorial election, which he lost. As mayor he encouraged protest movements against Futenma, and actively participated in those activities at Nodake Gate. When the CH-53 crashed in August 2004, he became the face of Okinawa as Governor Inamine Keiichi was abroad at the time.

 His popularity dropped for a while following his loss to incumbent Nakaima Hirokazu in 2010. I initially did not think he would run this time, instead having one of his allies from Ginowan do so, but he was chosen through a variety of deals within the “All Okinawa” coalition of leftist parties and LDP breakaways.

 One of the likely deals is that he will be chosen by Governor Onaga Takeshi to succeed him in 2022, after serving one term in the Upper House, on the assumption that Onaga is re-elected in 2018.

 This shows that the All Okinawa front has a clear strategy, and slots filled, whereas the conservatives take it one election at a time and lack both a strategy and the personnel to fill the positions.

 Shimajiri served not only as a member of the Upper House but also as the chairperson of the Okinawa Prefectural Chapter of the LDP and the Minister for Okinawan and Northern Territories Affairs, as well as five other ministerial positions. It is unprecedented that someone in her position—representing Okinawa in the ruling party and serving as the minister in charge of Okinawan development matters—to lose. (In a sense it is also self-defeating for Okinawan voters to boot that person from office, as the representative replacing her from Okinawa would no longer be in the cabinet anymore.)

 In any case, the Abe administration appears to have no post-Shimajiri plan, even though it can retain her in the position as a member of the private sector. This lack of foresight and planning, and intellectual honesty and courage, is what got the LDP in trouble in Okinawa in the first place.

 We can expect the next several years to be equally difficult, if not more, in relations between Okinawa and the central government, and on the policy front.

 While indeed this was democracy—the people’s will—at work, we can also say that suicide is the same—a person’s will at work. This was not a good day for Okinawa.

 I hope at any rate, it leads to the rebuilding of the Okinawa Chapter of the ruling LDP, the reexamination of policy for Okinawa in general, and the development of a responsible opposition here in this important prefecture.