Japan today faces so many economic and political problems that the mayoral election in a remote provincial town is likely to pass largely unnoticed. Yet the upcoming Feb. 3 election in the northern Okinawan city of Nago could be as important as any national election--and its outcome will have large consequences for Okinawa, for Japan as a whole and, not least, for the country's alliance with the United States.

Nago City (Population: 55,000) is remote enough, an hour or so by road north from the Okinawan prefectural capital of Naha, which itself is about 600 miles from Tokyo. Nago is subtropical, surrounded by forest and coral reef, its traditional economy centered on agriculture and fishing. Like the rest of Okinawa, it is rooted in tourism, public works and American military bases. It suffers a debilitating recession, steep unemployment, especially among young people, and a growing anxiety about the future.

The bases are Okinawa's special problem. Seventy-five percent of all American military facilities in Japan are concentrated in its 0.6 percent of the national land. Bases occupy one fifth of the entire land-space of Okinawa island, including much of the best land. They played a key role in the Korean and Vietnam wars and in the gulf war of 1991. But with the end of the cold war in the 1990s, Okinawans felt that it was also time to end what they saw as an oppressive American military occupation. When a 12-year-old girl was abducted and raped by three U.S. servicemen in September 1995, the island erupted in anger. The outcome was the promise of the return of the Marine Air Station at Futenma, a huge base that sprawls across the middle of Ginowan township.

The islanders' joy over the promise was short-lived, however, because it was conditional on the facilities being replaced-and that turned out to mean being upgraded and expanded. Eventually, U.S. and Japanese negotiators designated the waters off the coral reef adjacent to the northern city of Nago as the replacement site. It was first described as a "heliport," conveying the image of something like a helipad-perhaps the area of a soccer field-but has since grown steadily. When national and prefectural authorities signed off on the deal in December 2001, it was for a massive construction with a 8,400-foot runway to be built right on the coral reef.

When the idea first surfaced, Nago residents were outraged, and the majority made clear in a December 1997 plebiscite that they opposed the plan. It was shelved for a time, but the pressure from Tokyo was relentless. All sorts of development funding was promised-a veritable boondoggle once construction got under way-that was not formally linked to the base plan, but part of a deal whose terms everybody understood. Late in 1999, the Nago City and Okinawan prefectural authorities yielded, passing resolutions approving the construction (subject to certain conditions). Yet there was no sign that popular opposition had weakened. A survey of Nago opinion showed the level of opposition at 59 to 23 percent-even stronger than in the plebiscite of 1997 (53 to 45 percent). Detailed construction plans were approved in Tokyo in late 2001, but until the forthcoming election the people have had no say in those proposals.

Incumbent mayor Tateo Kishimoto now seeks an endorsement that would free him from the conditions he insisted on in 1999-a 15-year term, joint civil-military use and avoidance of any environmental harm. But he prefers to campaign on his development policy, which boils down to the various pledges obtained from Tokyo for a graduate-school university, a technology center and a "special economic zone." He conducts his campaign in the dango settai' style-a traditional conservative method involving small meetings with business and sectional interest groups, avoidance of public meetings and refusals to debate his opponent. His confidence seems well placed: conservatives have been repeatedly victorious in Okinawan elections since the end of 1998.

Kishimoto's opponent is Yasuhiro Miyagi, a central figure in the 1997 antibase campaign. When Miyagi and his supporters gathered in the January rain under Nago City's ancient banyan tree to launch their campaign, they were under no illusions. In contesting a matter decided at the highest levels, they challenged not just Kishimoto but the power of Tokyo and Washington. Miyagi insists that nobody, U.S. president or Japanese prime minister included, is going to impose an unwanted base on his town.

While refusing the base, Miyagi also challenges Tokyo's bona fides-in effect calling its bluff by holding the government to its pledge of development funding even while refusing the quid pro quo, the base. Furthermore, he insists on local priorities-works for the public rather than traditional and scam-ridden "public works." The construction of a European-style light-rail link to Naha is a central plank of his economic policy, making him the first Japanese politician in 40 years to identify railway construction as a key economic and social program. His insistence on priority for welfare needs also strikes powerful local chords, especially while Kishimoto is actively pushing plans to privatize the town's child-care system.

In place of the develop-at-all-costs mentality that has seen nature as a resource to be sacrificed for development, Miyagi has also shown an almost religious awe of the living creatures of his electorate's forest and coral reef, especially the internationally protected dugong that inhabit the reef site. His choice of the banyan tree for his campaign launch was profoundly symbolic. Last year, he led an Okinawan delegation to the Australian city of Townsville to study conservation, especially dugong protection, on the continent's Great Barrier Reef. When he returned to Japan, he recommended to the Nago City authorities that they should adopt the Australian model of conservation. That sort of commitment is also new and revolutionary for a Japanese politician.

There have been no recent opinion polls to indicate what the voters think of the candidates. One indicator of the intensity of the competition, however, is that more than 5,000 absentee votes-over 10 percent of the electorate and more than five times higher than in any previous election-were recorded in the five days leading up to Jan. 31. Because Miyagi and his friends were victorious once before when they took on the same combination of apparently overwhelming force, they are not to be written off now. Nonetheless, in the history of the modern Japanese state there are few, if any, precedents for successful local resistance to a determined, central state power.

Feb. 3 is the first day of spring according to the old Japanese calendar. Throughout the country, Japanese people cast beans about their homes, calling out oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi (out with devils, in with good fortune). If against all the odds, Miyagi and his band of volunteers and local citizens can defeat the best combined efforts of Naha, Tokyo and Washington, that might indeed herald a much longed-for spring in crisis-ridden Japan. Their victory could open the way for other challenges by Japan's civil society against its sclerotic and corrupt state, encouraging reformists and democrats throughout the land.