Okinawa voters say no to US base relocation plan in prefecture-wide referendum
By MATT BURKE AND AYA ICHIHASHI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 24, 2019
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Just over half of Okinawa’s 1.15 million registered voters turned out Sunday to deliver a resounding “no” vote in a referendum on the plan to relocate Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
Out of the 601,733 voters who turned out, 434,149 — or approximately 72 percent — voted against the reclamation of land in Oura Bay at Camp Schwab for a new military runway. The plan is to close Futenma and relocate Marine air operations to Henoko on Okinawa’s less populated northern coast.
The vote is sure to further complicate matters for Japan’s central government, which has pushed forward with the project for decades despite a persistent local protest movement.
Construction of the runway is already underway and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said the relocation project will continue regardless of the referendum’s result.
“We have been holding dialogue with people in Okinawa for a long time and intend to keep doing so to seek their understanding,” he told reporters a day after the vote, Kyodo News service reported Monday. But it “cannot be postponed any further.”
The referendum was the brainchild of the Henoko Referendum Group, which began collecting signatures at local supermarkets in May, group chairman Jinshiroh Motoyama told Stars and Stripes last year. By July, the group had collected over 100,000 signatures, about 76,000 more than needed to put the issue on the ballot.
Anti-base signs seemed to appear on every street corner in the weeks ahead of the vote. Besides the 434,149 votes against the reclamation work at Henoko, 114,908 voted in favor of the move and 52,676 were undecided.
Per the referendum, if the majority vote is greater than 25 percent of all registered voters, then Gov. Denny Tamaki must report the result to Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump. The “no” votes in this case tallied about 38 percent of registered voters.
Marine officials could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon.
The local arm of Japan’s Ministry of Defense, the Okinawa Defense Bureau, declined to comment on the vote, saying it was “local governance.”
Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, told reporters Friday that Tokyo would continue the construction with “persistent effort.” Defense minister Takeshi Iwaya said Tuesday that Japan’s central government would not entertain moving the approximately 30,000 U.S. troops stationed in Okinawa off island due to Okinawa’s strategic importance.
“Okinawa is a key location for Japan’s security and a deterrent in the region,” Iwaya said. “Japan will make sure to return Futenma back to Okinawa to reduce the burden of hosting U.S. bases.”
He added that it was the central government’s responsibility to close Futenma due to safety concerns.
Gov. Denny Tamaki – who was elected in September on an anti-base platform – told Stars and Stripes in a statement Monday that the referendum showed the will of the Okinawan people and must be respected.
“Tokyo must take this result sincerely and they must reconsider their idea that, ‘Henoko is the only [option],’ and stop the construction,” he said. They must “discuss and resolve the root of the issue; closing the MCAS Futenma and return the land to Okinawa as soon as possible.”