Voters in the Japan's Okinawa prefecture on Sunday overwhelmingly rejected construction plans to build a new U.S. military base to replace another "noisy and dangerous" base, sending a clear message to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration that residents remain frustrated by the significant presence of American armed forces in the region.
More than 72 percent of those who turned out for the referendum—representing nearly 40 percent of the southwestern prefecture's eligible voters—came together across age groups and political parties to oppose "the landfill work for the construction of the U.S. base that the government is planning in Henoko, Nago City, as a replacement for the Futenma airfield."
"The central government should reconsider its policy that Henoko is the only candidate site for relocation, and suspend the [ongoing land reclamation] work," said Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki, according to the Japanese newspaper The Asahi Shimbun. "We will also strongly demand that the central government start dialogue with the Okinawa prefectural government toward the closure of the Futenma air station and return of its land [to Japan]."
Tamaki campaigned against the construction and was elected in September—another signal that the people of Okinawa want the U.S. military presence scaled back in the prefecture—but so far, he has been unable to convince Abe's administration to cancel the relocation plans established in 1996. While Tamaki called the referendum's outcome "extremely significant," his latest appeal to Abe apparently has not changed the prime minister's position.
"We will take the results seriously and will do our best to reduce [the prefecture's] burden of hosting U.S. military bases," Abe told reporters on Monday, according to The Asahi Shimbun. "[But] we can't postpone [the relocation] any longer." He also reiterated that "the relocation is not only intended to construct a new base off Henoko but also to transfer the functions of the Futenma air station and realize the return [of its land to Japan]."
As The Associated Press outlined:
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Henoko is to replace another base on the island in Futenma that is in a more residential area and has long been criticized as noisy and dangerous. The U.S. military, while declining comment on the referendum, has said the Henoko agreement is needed for regional security...
Although Okinawa makes up less than 1 percent of Japan's land space, it has about half of the 54,000 American troops stationed in Japan, and is home to 64 percent of the land used by the U.S. bases in the country under a bilateral security treaty.
Complicating matters is the historical suffering of Okinawa, where huge civilian casualties were recorded in the closing days of World War II. The bloodiest battles were fought on Okinawa. Okinawa also remained under U.S. occupation until 1972, much longer than the rest of Japan.
In addition to the heavy presence of U.S. troops in the region, which already has threatened the safety of residents, as the Guardian reports, "critics say the Henoko base will destroy the area's delicate marine ecosystem and threaten the safety of about 2,000 residents living near the site."
The construction plans have provoked not only opposition in the prefecture, but also among some Americans of Japanese descent—including Robert Kajiwara, who started a White House petition last year to support the referendum that has garnered more than 210,000 signatures. He told the AP he hopes to continue talks with U.S. lawmakers and U.N. officials to highlight what he described as human rights violations against the people of Okinawa.
"They are dumping it all on the tiny islands of Okinawa," he told the outlet by telephone while visiting protesters in Okinawa. "This is just an extension of the prejudice."