Okinawa re-elects opposition-backed governor in blow to ruling party

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TOKYO — Voters in Japan’s Okinawa re-elected Denny Tamaki as governor on Sunday, public broadcaster NHK and other media said, backing an independent candidate who wants a smaller U.S. military footprint on the chain of islands near Taiwan.

The anticipated re-election of Tamaki, who was supported by a coalition of opposition parties, is a sign of pushback against Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s ruling party, which has been hit by scandal over members’ ties to the Unification Church.

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Okinawa prefecture is far closer to Taiwan than to Tokyo, putting it front and center to growing tension in the region. Beijing claims Taiwan as its own. Public broadcaster NHK and other local media declared Tamaki the winner, citing exit polls. Official results are likely to be released overnight.

The son of a U.S. Marine and a Japanese mother, was first elected as governor four years ago on an anti-U.S. military presence platform. This time he focused more on the economy, after the pandemic hit Okinawa’s tourism industry hard.

He told cheering supporters that he would continue to work to bolster the social safety net for the poor, although he did not skirt the contentious issue of U.S. military bases.

“I have not wavered one millimeter, nor will I, in my efforts to resolve the base issue and I will continue to share my thoughts with the people of the prefecture and seek a solution from the government,” he said.

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China this summer launched five missiles into the sea close to Okinawa, and within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, during military exercises after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan.

Kishida’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has pushed for increased defense spending to counter Beijing, but media polls had showed voters were likely to re-elect Tamaki.

The LDP backed Atsushi Sakima, a former mayor. Tamaki defeated him in 2018, partly by calling for the large Futenma U.S. air base to be moved outside the prefecture.

Okinawa saw some of the bloodiest fighting in World War Two and has long resented the burden of hosting the majority of U.S. troops in Japan on facilities that take up 5% of its land. (Reporting by Elaine Lies and David Dolan; Additional reporting by Nobuhiro Kubo; Editing by Chang-Ran Kim, William Mallard, Frances Kerry and Alexander Smith)

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