Since the end of World War II, the United States has maintained a strong military presence in Japan, with multiple bases spread across the nation’s islands. Okinawa, a small island of roughly 450 square miles, hosts 32 American military facilities, enough to cover approximately 20% of the island’s total landmass.
While a key element of US-Japanese relations, the bases are enormously unpopular with local residents. Protesters have demonstrated against a proposed relocation of the Futenma air base, demanding that the facility be removed from Okinawa altogether.
With local elections approaching, the Japanese government is working to ensure that Atsushi Sakima, the pro-government, Liberal Democratic Party incumbent, wins the Ginowan mayoral election.
"The central government always just talks about security and the US-Japan alliance, giving the sense they aren’t thinking seriously about Okinawa’s benefit," said Tomoaki Iwai, a law professor at Nihon University in Tokyo.
"There is a sense of money being used as a sweetener."
That money comes in many forms. In December, the government in Tokyo promised to increase Okinawa’s spending budget by $8.5 million in the upcoming fiscal year. The budget had been cut after the island elected Takeshi Onaga, a governor who opposed the presence of the Futenma base.
Onaga was sued by the Japanese Minister of Land Keiichi Ishii over the former’s refusal to follow Tokyo’s relocation recommendations for the airbase.
The administration of Prime Minister Abe has also indicated that it would back a Disney resort for the island, and pledged more aid for impoverished local children.
To campaign, the Liberal Democratic Party has dispatched lawmaker Shinjiro Koizumi to Okinawa, a popular figure among swing voters.
For now, the effectiveness of Tokyo’s strategy is unclear.
"The incumbent appears in the lead, but his opponent is catching up," said Katsuhiko Nakamura, executive director at Asia Forum Japan. "There is some doubt about whether the government offered ‘services’ are helping."
Even if Sakima holds on to his position, it doesn’t mean that Abe will have an easy time relocating the American base.
"I don’t think if the incumbent wins that it is a vote of support for the Henoko relocation, it is just a vote in favor of getting rid of the base and getting a Disneyland in its place," said Gerry Curtis of Columbia University.
"But if the opposition wins it is a huge defeat for Abe."