Tokyo sees controversial plan for new base at Henoko as key to US security alliance
Justin McCurry in Tokyo – The Guardian
Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has vowed to push on with the controversial relocation of a US military base in Okinawa, hours after the island’s voters overwhelmingly rejected the move in a referendum.
Just over 70% of voters – or 434,000 people – opposed construction of a new base on Okinawa’s northeast coast that will replace an existing US marine corps base 30 miles away. Just 19% voted in favour of the move, with turnout at 52%.
Speaking to reporters on Monday morning, Abe acknowledged the strength of feeling among Okinawa residents but said construction work would continue.
“We have been holding dialogue with people in Okinawa for a long time and intend to keep doing so to seek their understanding,” Abe said, according to Kyodo news agency.
The number of “no” votes easily exceeded the threshold of more than a quarter of Okinawa’s 1.16 million eligible voters required for the island’s governor, Denny Tamaki, to “respect” the referendum’s outcome.
The referendum asked voters if they opposed, supported or held neither opinion on the construction of a military base in Henoko, a fishing village on the island’s north-east coast that is home to coral reefs and one of the few remaining habitats of the dugong.
The new facility is supposed to replace the marines’ Futenma airbase, located in the middle of a densely populated city. Futenma has attracted complaints about crimes committed by service personnel, noise and the threat of aircraft accidents in an area close to homes and schools.
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.
Opposition to the US military presence on Okinawa surged after the 1995 abduction and rape and abduction of a 12-year-old girl by three US servicemen.
A year later, Tokyo and Washington agreed to reduce the US military footprint on Okinawa by closing Futenma and relocating its functions to Henoko. But most Okinawans want the new base to be built elsewhere in Japan.
Tamaki hailed the result as “extremely significant”, adding, “I will strongly demand that the government squarely face the resolute will of our people, review its present policy immediately and halt the construction.”
He is due to visit Abe’s office and the US embassy in Tokyo to officially convey the referendum result and restart negotiations.
Some Okinawa voters complained that the government in Tokyo had routinely ignored their objections to the presence of US military personnel and bases.
“There are so many American troops here. Of course, ninety-nine percent of them are good people, but then there is that one percent who do bad things. It’s hard for us,” Tomomichi Shimabukuro, who runs a seaside inn, said ahead of the vote.
Political and legal challenges to construction work at Henoko have frustrated US officials, who insist that marines are needed on Okinawa to respond to crises in potential flashpoints in the South and East China seas, as well as the emergence of a nuclear-armed North Korea.
Abe has argued the replacement base is the only way of easing pressure on residents living near the Futenma base while maintaining Japan’s commitment to its security alliance with the US.
While the “no” vote is not legally binding, the government risks accusations of dismissing local sentiment out of hand by continuing with land reclamation work in the sea off Henoko.
Jun Shimabukuro, a professor at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa, said the referendum was an important opportunity for the island’s residents to make their voices heard. “It can be a test to gauge if democracy is working in Japan,” Shimabukuro said ahead of the vote.
Col John Hutcheson, a spokesman for US Forces Japan, said the relocation plan would enable the US military to close Futenma while protecting “vital capabilities” to ensure regional security.
“We are committed to maintaining good relations with local communities on Okinawa and do our best every day to balance their concerns with the necessity to maintain readiness in support of our treaty commitments,” Hutcheson said, while declining to comment directly on the referendum.
- Agencies contributed to this report.