The man who said 'no' to Japan's PMs

The man who said 'no' to Japan's PMs

JAPAN - The governor of Okinawa, Mr Hirokazu Nakaima, hardly ever manages a smile.

And until last week, he was the only governor who dared to say "no" to a succession of prime ministers who sought his approval to relocate a controversial US airbase.

Since he took charge of the prefecture in 2006, Mr Nakaima has had to field tough questions from reporters all the time.

These include whether or not he supports building a runway at Henoko in Okinawa to replace the United States' Futenma airbase, which is located in the middle of a densely populated town in a different part of the prefecture.

Environmentalists object to the choice of Henoko, saying marine life in the area will be threatened, while many Okinawans want the Futenma airbase to be moved out of the prefecture completely.

But no other local authority in Japan is willing to host another US airbase.

Neither are the Americans keen to leave Okinawa.

Mr Nakaima has been grappling with this dilemma since he became governor, vowing to move Futenma out of Okinawa.

Procedurally, his assent is required for the reclamation of land at Henoko for a new base.

Successive premiers have tried to get him to say "yes" but without success - until Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week.

He has met every request from the central government with a stern "no" and an unyielding look on his face to underline it.

It is no wonder that Western reporters, used to seeing governors of other prefectures become all conciliatory when they meet the prime minister of the day, are inclined to view Mr Nakaima as pugnacious and belligerent.

But to understand why he appears to be so, one must remember that Okinawa is unlike other Japanese prefectures.

The independent kingdom of Ryukyu that became Okinawa after it was annexed to Japan 134 years ago still retains much of its uniqueness and a surprising reluctance by its people to be regarded as Japanese.

Okinawa residents still proudly refer to themselves as "uchinanchu" (people of Okinawa).

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