2014 / Local Japan elections cast shadow for Abe, WSJ reports

Wall Street Journal, Saturday, January 18, 2014

Local Japan Elections Cast Shadow for Abe

By Toko Sekiguchi

TOKYO – Having won both parliamentary chambers last year, 2014 was supposed to be an election-free year for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—at least none that would rock his policy boat in any meaningful way.

But an unscheduled Tokyo election for governor is suddenly looking like a referendum by the nation’s biggest energy consumers on Japan’s nuclear policy. And Sunday’s election of a small rural town in the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa could potentially affect Tokyo’s relationship with Washington.

Thus, barely a month into his second year, Mr. Abe is facing major challenge in two key fields – energy and foreign policy.

In Okinawa, the key issue that separates the incumbent mayor and his challenger in the city of Nago is whether to bring a U.S. Marine Corps airbase to their city—an extremely controversial issue in Okinawa, which hosts roughly 70% of U.S. military personnel assigned to Japan.

With one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates and a bitter history of having been the buffer for mainland Japan to U.S. military offense during World War II, Okinawa residents have been split on the financial benefits of U.S. military stations and bearing the burden of hosting 28,000 troops.

In the years since Japan and the U.S. agreed to move the U.S. Futenma Air Base located in a dense central Okinawa area to Nago, the city’s leaders accepted the plan, until the antibase Susumu Inamine’s 2010 mayoral win reversed the trend. He will be running against a pro-relocation candidate Bunshin Suematsu, who has the backing of Mr. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party.

The election comes less than a month after Okinawa’s governor gave the green light for a landfill permit in Nago that promises to propel the longstanding relocation plan.

While the Nago mayor doesn’t have the authority to overturn the governor’s decision, he could interfere with the project by blocking peripheral contrition, which requires city permits.

Meanwhile, the decision this week, of former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa to run for Tokyo governor on an anitinuclear platform will pose a headache for the Abe administration, which has been wary of nuclear-energy policy becoming the election issue.

The government has been preparing to sign off on reactivating some of the nation’s 50 idled commercial reactors once they are deemed to comply with new safety standards introduced after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis.

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