Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who fiercely confronted the central government over the relocation of a U.S. base within the island prefecture, died Wednesday, the prefectural government said.
Okinawa Prefecture, led by the 67-year-old Onaga, has been confronting the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over the transfer of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from densely populated Ginowan to the coastal area of Henoko in Nago.
Opponents of the base transfer may struggle to find a strong candidate for the upcoming gubernatorial election originally scheduled in November but now expected in September. The Okinawa assembly is controlled by members against the relocation plan, but they were expecting Onaga to run.
One assembly member who supported Onaga said, “We’re shocked. We don’t know what to do.”
A source close to Abe said, “It would be a very tough battle as we’ll be facing strong emotional opposition from prefectural residents who don’t want to waste Mr. Onaga’s efforts.”
Late last month, Onaga, who was recuperating after undergoing pancreatic cancer surgery, asked local officials to start procedures to retract his predecessor’s approval of landfill work for the base relocation in his latest attempt to block the construction work.
Both sides have already fought a number of times in court. The central government believes the base is necessary for Japan to maintain the perceived deterrence provided by the United States, while many in Okinawa regard it as an unfair burden on the prefecture, which hosts the bulk of U.S. forces.
The news of Onaga’s death came after Deputy Gov. Kiichiro Jahana said earlier Wednesday the governor had fallen into a “state of clouded consciousness.”
Onaga was performing official duties while undergoing medical treatment after a tumor was found in his pancreas in April. He had not appeared in public recently.
Onaga became governor in November 2014, defeating then-incumbent Hirokazu Nakaima who was more supportive of the base relocation and approved the start of the reclamation work in December 2013.
Onaga also served 14 years as mayor of the prefectural capital Naha.
Under the election law, the gubernatorial election to choose the Onaga’s successor must be held within 50 days.
Masaaki Gabe, a professor of international relations at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa, said prefectural residents found Onaga’s persistent opposition to the base construction and confrontation with the central government “almost heroic.”
Still, it would be difficult to predict if people in Okinawa will pick another base transfer opponent as some would see the upcoming election as a “battle of revenge,” but others may look back on Onaga’s stance and find it “unrealistic,” Gabe said.
The local chapter of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party had recently asked Ginowan Mayor Atsushi Sakima to run in the Nov. 18 gubernatorial election.
While Sakima has said he will need time to make up his mind, he criticized Onaga for focusing too much on the U.S. base issue and failing to make progress through negotiations.