Voters in Okinawa re-elect opposition-backed governor, media reports

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TOKYO, Sept 11 (Reuters) – Voters in Okinawa in Japan re-elected Denny Tamaki as governor on Sunday, state broadcaster NHK and other media reported, backing an independent candidate who wants a smaller U.S. military footprint on the chain of islands close to Taiwan.

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

Okinawa Prefecture is much closer to Taiwan than to Tokyo, putting it at the center of growing tensions in the region.

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This summer, China launched five missiles into the sea near Okinawa and Japan’s exclusive economic zone in military exercises after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. which Beijing claims as its own.

NHK and other Japanese media declared Tamaki the winner, citing exit polls. Official results are expected overnight.

The son of a US Marine and a Japanese mother, Tamaki was first elected governor four years ago when he campaigned against US military presence. This time he focused more on the economy, after the pandemic hit Okinawa’s tourism industry.

He told his enthusiastic supporters that he would continue to work to strengthen the social safety net for the poor, although he did not dodge the contentious issue of US military bases.

“I haven’t faltered one millimeter, nor will I falter, in my efforts to solve the root problem and I will continue to share my thoughts with people in the prefecture and seek a solution from the government,” he said.

His victory is likely to be seen as a setback for Kishida’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has seen approval ratings plummet following revelations about long-standing ties between some lawmakers and the Church of India. Unification, which critics call a sect.

Kishida apologized for his party’s ties to the church and vowed to regain public trust by severing them. The backlash has also stoked public opposition to the planned state funeral for slain former prime minister Shinzo Abe, who spoke at an event hosted by an affiliated church last year.

“The governor’s re-election was expected, but the stakes weren’t just basics,” said Hiroshi Shiratori, a political science professor at Hosei University in Tokyo. He added that Abe’s funeral and the Unification Church scandal also played a role. “They also had an impact.”

Kishida’s decision (LDP) pushed for increased defense spending to counter Beijing and backed former local mayor Atsushi Sakima. Tamaki defeated Sakima in 2018, in part by demanding that the major US airbase at Futenma be moved out of the prefecture.

Okinawa saw some of the bloodiest fighting of World War II and has long felt the burden of housing the majority of US troops in Japan at facilities that occupy 5% of its territory.

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Reporting by Elaine Lies and Yoshifumi Takemoto; Additional reporting by Nobuhiro Kubo and David Dolan; Editing by Chang-Ran Kim, William Mallard, Frances Kerry, Alexander Smith and Tomasz Janowski

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