- Okinawa youth support LDP given threat from China and sluggish economy
- LDP seeks additional seat to signal change in opposition-held territory
- Residents of border islands feel Chinese tensions
Okinawa, Japan, October 29 (Reuters) – Aiko Shimajiri punches her supporters as she shows up at a rally in an arena in Uruma town in Okinawa, the former minister of the ruling party in Japan relishing the prospect of securing an upset vote this weekend.
Nationally, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is expected to lose seats in Sunday’s lower house election mainly due to voter dissatisfaction with the handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
But in the far south of Okinawa Prefecture – long a bastion of pacifist opposition – the PLD’s harsher line on China and its proactive security policy are helping it win over young voters.
“If we don’t have American forces and our Self-Defense Forces (SDF) here, we can be attacked by China,” electrician Takuji Ikemiya, 41, said at the rally. “We think differently from the older generation who experienced war and its aftermath.”
Elderly voters mostly stick to left-wing parties, aware of Okinawa’s past as one of the bloodiest battlefields of WWII, and oppose US military bases that house 50,000 people and occupy a fifth of the main island.
The PLD has called for an unprecedented doubling of defense spending, largely in response to China’s aggressive military stance on Taiwan, just 110 km (68 miles) from the westernmost island of this strategic archipelago bordering the East China Sea.
The LDP will not reverse its projected losses on this one issue alone, experts say. But the fact that the party is on the verge of making gains in Okinawa shows how worries about China are helping the PLD win a longer match with the electorate.
Data from internal LDP polls shows around 40% support for one of its Okinawan candidates among those in their 30s and 40s. It is only 25% of those over 60, almost half of this cohort supporting an opponent of the Communist Party.
The opposition movement “All Okinawa”, which dominated local politics with its anti-base message, lost momentum: a candidate backed by the ruling bloc won the mayoral race in Uruma in April, and a powerful corporate sponsor switched sides for the PLD last month.
“All Okinawa” holds three of Okinawa’s four districts, but polls show the LDP, which holds the remaining seat, could snatch one more if Shimajiri turns a close battle into a victory.
“My parents support ‘All Okinawa’ because of their anti-base stance, but I grew up with American bases and take them for granted,” said Kazuhisa Higa, 33, a construction company worker. who will vote LDP.
The Okinawa trend reflects a broader shift initiated about a decade ago by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who galvanized young voters with his nationalist message, said Yoichiro Sato, professor of international relations at the University. Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific.
“Abe lowered the voting age to 18 knowing that the platform he was championing would attract younger voters. The conservative platform, defense was part of it, but also nationalism,” Sato said, adding that the program Abe’s economy was also popular.
Under Abe, Japan introduced laws allowing its troops to fight on foreign soil, ended the ban on military exports, and reinterpreted the country’s constitution renouncing war to allow missile strikes on enemy territory. .
A poll in the Mainichi daily last week showed the trend continued across Japan, with 40% of those under 40 supporting the PLD, compared to 10% for the largest opposition party.
Certainly, the main concern of voters is the economic recovery from the pandemic. The view that the LDP is more capable and can do more in Okinawa – one of the poorest regions in the country – is also a major driver of youth support for the party.
“It’s not like young people are forgetting their identity as Okinawans. But if there’s no work here, then you can’t live here anyway, can you?” said Hiroto Higa, 34, elected local PLD deputy in July.
But 500 km (310 miles) southwest of the island of Okinawa, on the tiny island of Yonaguni, from where the Taiwanese mountains are visible a few times a year, the Chinese threat is more palpable.
During the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1996, Chinese missiles landed near the island, threatening Japanese and Taiwanese fishing boats, said Hirotoshi Ogimi, a 64-year-old fisherman.
“At that time, Taiwanese fishing boats were entering the fishing grounds near Yonaguni to avoid pressure from China,” he said.
Two decades later, to Beijing’s chagrin, Japan opened a radar station on the island to collect intelligence on China.
The result is a place of surreal contrasts, where wild horses roam and huge military radar towers loom in the background. Some 1,700 villagers live on the island, including 240 SDF members and their families.
Some members of the island chain complain that the bases make them a potential target. Others, like Mariko Nishiyama, 36, who runs a horse ranch in Yonaguni, said she was afraid of China but, “now that we have the homeless base, I feel more secure in the event that crisis “.
Additional reports from Issei Kato; Editing by Antoni Slodkowski and Lincoln Feast
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