Voters will head to the polls for the mayoral election in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, on Sunday, with the planned relocation of a U.S. Marine base to the city the dominant issue during campaigning.
The election pits Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine, 68, who opposes the construction of a new U.S. military facility in the city's Henoko district and is seeking a second four-year term, against Bunshin Suematsu, 65, a former Okinawa prefectural assembly member who backs the relocation plan.
Coming after Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima's decision last month to approve the central government's application for landfill work to build the facility, a victory for Inamine could delay the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station from a crowded residential area in Ginowan, also in Okinawa.
Sunday's mayoral election in Nago will be the fifth since Tokyo and Washington agreed in 1996 to return the land used for the Futenma base within five to seven years to reduce the burden on Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military forces in Japan.
A majority of Nago residents voted in a 1997 referendum against the planned relocation, but pro-base candidates subsequently triumphed, a trend that was broken by Inamine when he was elected in 2010.
Inamine said in a speech at the start of official campaigning last Sunday that he will "not allow the construction of the base either on land or sea in the Henoko area."
Inamine has the support of the Japanese Communist Party, the People's Life Party, the Social Democratic Party and a local political party.
Suematsu, who is backed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, has stressed his strong connections with the central government, saying during campaigning, "I want to rebuild our economy and create a new community (in Nago)."
As part of efforts to reduce the burden on Okinawa from hosting bases, the central government has unveiled a package to provide financial support worth around 300 billion yen every year until fiscal 2021.
In a sign of the government's all-out support for Suematsu, several lawmakers from the ruling camp and Cabinet members have visited Nago during campaigning and Okinawa Gov. Nakaima has also thrown his support behind Suematsu.
Political experts say the government is worried that Inamine's re-election could delay the landfill work for the new facility as he could use his mayoral power to block the use of ports and rivers managed by the city.
Nago had 46,665 eligible voters as of last Saturday.
Last year, Tokyo and Washington agreed to complete the transfer of the Futenma base by fiscal 2022 or later, but the relocation remains an emotional issue in Okinawa due to deep antibase sentiment because of past incidents, notably the 1995 rape of a local school girl in Okinawa by U.S. servicemen, which triggered massive protests against the U.S. military.
A string of incidents such as the 2004 crash of a U.S. helicopter at Okinawa International University, situated near the Futenma base, also fanned anxiety in Okinawa over the safety of U.S. military operations.