Okinawan People Vote By 72% To Oppose US Military Base, But Abe Moves Ahead Anyway

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Above Photo: Opponents to the land reclamation work off the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, applaud while watching a TV report on the referendum in Naha on Feb. 24. (Masaru Komiyaji)

NAHA–Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki proclaimed that the decisive 72 percent opposed to the relocation of a U.S. military base within Okinawa Prefecture in a referendum on Feb. 24 shows the “firm will” of the people.

Tamaki told reporters before dawn on Feb. 25 that the people of Okinawa will never allow the land reclamation work off Henoko for the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

“The central government should reconsider its policy that Henoko is the only candidate site for relocation, and suspend the (ongoing land reclamation) work,” Tamaki said. “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).”

In the prefecture-wide referendum, a total of 434,273 voters, or 72.15 percent of the total ballots cast, expressed opposition to the relocation of the air station from the current location of Ginowan to the Henoko district of Nago.

Meanwhile, 114,933 voters, or 19.10 percent, supported the relocation, and 52,682 voters, or 8.75 percent, chose “No opinion either way” in the three-choice ballot.

The number of opposition votes exceeded those of the other two choices in all the 41 municipalities in the prefecture. The total is also larger than the record 396,632 votes won by Tamaki in the Okinawa gubernatorial election in September.

Voter turnout stood at 52.48 percent, exceeding the 50 percent level that is regarded as the lowest figure to consider the prefectural referendum results as meaningful.

The referendum was held only on the “one issue” of whether to support the land reclamation work off the Henoko district for the relocation within the prefecture, which is currently under way.

It marked the first time that the people in Okinawa Prefecture expressed their will of “no to Henoko” in their ballots that focused on one issue.

The referendum is not legally binding. However, with the number of opposition votes exceeding 288,398, or a quarter of the total number of eligible voters of 1,153,591 in the prefecture, the Okinawa governor is required to inform Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump of the result of the referendum.

Buoyed by the voters’ opposition, Tamaki will strongly urge the Abe administration to suspend the work for the relocation of the Futenma air station.

He plans to visit the prime minister’s office and the U.S. Embassy, both in Tokyo, on March 1 to convey the results of the referendum.

The Okinawa people have maintained strong opposition to the relocation of the Futenma base within the prefecture since the latter half of the 1990s when the relocation plan surfaced.

In the Okinawa gubernatorial elections in 2014 and 2018, Takeshi Onaga and Tamaki, respectively, both won on anti-base relocation platforms.

However, in other local elections, such as the Ginowan mayoral election in 2016 and the Nago mayoral election in 2018, candidates supported by the Abe administration emerged victorious.

Therefore, the Abe administration and the Liberal Democratic Party emphasized that opposition to the relocation to Henoko was not solely the will of all the people of Okinawa.

The referendum marked the first time in 23 years that a prefectural-wide referendum was held in Japan. In 1996, a referendum was held in Okinawa Prefecture on the reduction of U.S. military bases in the prefecture and the review of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement.

Okinawa currently hosts about 70 percent of U.S. military facilities in Japan.

Abe moves ahead with base work in Okinawa after ‘no’ referendum

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Feb. 25 that land reclamation work will continue for a new U.S. air station in Okinawa Prefecture despite a referendum showing 72 percent of islanders oppose the project.

“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 at the prime minister’s office in Tokyo. “(But) we can’t postpone (the relocation) any longer.”

The new base will be built off the Henoko district of Nago to take over the functions of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma located in a crowded residential area in Ginowan, also in Okinawa Prefecture.

The return to Japan of the land where the Futunma air station is located, and the relocation of its functions, was agreed upon by Japan and the United States in the 1990s. However, Okinawa residents and politicians have demanded that the functions be moved outside of their prefecture, which is currently home to about 70 percent of U.S. military facilities in Japan.

“We want (the people of Okinawa Prefecture) to understand 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),” Abe said.

In the Feb. 24 prefectural referendum, 72.15 percent of voters opposed the land reclamation work off Henoko, 19.10 percent supported the project and 8.75 percent had “no opinion either way.” The results of the vote are not legally binding.

Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya on Feb. 25 echoed the sentiments of the prime minister.

“We want to proceed with the (land reclamation) work,” Iwaya said.

On the night of Feb. 24, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party issued a statement under the name of Fumio Kishida, chairman of the party’s Policy Research Council.

“We will take the results of the voting seriously,” the statement said, adding that relocation work would proceed regardless of the outcome. “We want to make our utmost efforts so that the work can obtain the understanding and cooperation from the people of the prefecture.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has said the original point of the relocation issue is to remove the dangers of the Futenma air station from the crowded area of Ginowan and have the land returned to Japan.

“Our idea of proceeding with the work remains unchanged,” he said.

Even before the official campaign kicked off for the referendum, Suga had repeatedly cast doubts on the purpose of the vote.

“Discussions aren’t being made on what should be done to prevent the Futenma air station from staying at its current site forever,” he said.

The referendum asked voters whether they supported the land reclamation work off Henoko instead of whether they approved the relocation of the Futenma air station.

A senior central government official also said that a referendum that didn’t ask voters about the pros and cons of the Futenma relocation was meaningless.

However, such criticism will likely fuel sentiment in the prefecture that the central government is continuing to ignore the will of the Okinawa people.

The central government has also failed to live up to its promise to the Okinawa prefectural government that operations at the Futenma air station would be halted within five years from mid-February 2014.

In fact, the central government still cannot show a schedule for when the Futenma operations will stop, and its emphasis on prioritizing safety in Ginowan is also falling flat.

It has been learned that the Defense Ministry started preparations to expand the land reclamation work off Henoko to deal with soft ground in wide areas of the seabed.

With the expanded work, the relocation project is expected to take many years to complete.

In his policy speech in 2018, Abe said, “We will side with the feelings of the Okinawa people and do our best to reduce the prefecture’s burden of hosting (U.S. military) bases.”

In his policy speech this year, however, he deleted the words “side with.”

Over the year, Okinawa Prefecture has strengthened its opposition to the Futenma relocation plan by, for example, electing anti-base candidate Denny Tamaki as governor in September.

A by-election in the Lower House Okinawa No. 3 constituency is scheduled for April while the Upper House election will be held in summer.