Okinawans vote in referendum on United States base removal plan

Japanese PM Abe set to ignore local referendum on US Okinawa military base relocation

Japanese PM Abe set to ignore local referendum on US Okinawa military base relocation

Residents of Japan's Okinawa were casting ballots on Sunday (Feb 24) in a closely watched referendum on the controversial relocation of a United States military base to a remote part of the island.

The prefecture-wide referendum asked voters to choose between supporting or opposing the construction of a new base off Nago to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, or having no opinion on the move. A petition requesting that the White House respect the will of the Okinawan people has attracted more than 210,000 signatures.

The vote is seen as highly symbolic but is also non-binding, raising questions about what effect it will have, even if opponents of the move, including Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki, prevail.

Okinawa's governor is required to "respect" the vote's outcome if at least a quarter of eligible voters - around 290,000 votes - vote for any one option.

The turnout was 52.48 percent, according to the prefecture, topping the 50 percent line seen as giving legitimacy to the referendum.

Okinawa is home to about half the 54,000 USA troops stationed in Japan and houses the largest US air base in the Asia-Pacific region.

"They are using a lot of tax money and manpower for this referendum, even though the result will not have any legal power".

According to the prefecture, the number of "no" votes stood at 434,273 or 72.2 percent of the total voters, and topping 396,632 which Tamaki garnered in the September gubernatorial election.

Voters in the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa resoundingly rejected the construction of a new USA military base on their island in a referendum on Sunday, causing a fresh headache for the central government and for US forces in Japan.

Japan relies heavily on the U.S. for its defence, and the government has said it will not abide by the referendum, even if the Henoko plan is rejected.

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"I feel most people of Okinawa are going to vote in protest of the plan", he told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

Ms Narumi Haine, 32, told AFP: "We usually shout no to the new base construction".

The idea of holding a referendum in Okinawa was initiated by a civic group in the hope it would coalesce support for the prefectural government's efforts to stop the central government from proceeding with the landfill work for the replacement facility.

The plan has its beginnings in 1995, when outrage erupted against U.S. service members over the rape of a 12-year-old girl, although Futenma has always been criticized as unsafe, being in a residential area.

The referendum asks: "On the landfill for the construction of the USA military base planned by the government in Henoko, Nago city, to replace Futenma air base", with the answers being: "I agree", "I oppose", and "Neither".

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.

The island prefecture's location is also seen as important for USA security interests in East Asia.

But there has been little sign the government will shift course if the vote goes against the move, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga saying there were no plans to halt the relocation regardless of the outcome. But the prefectural assembly ended up passing a revised ordinance on January 29 to add the choice of "neither" to bring in five cities including Ginowan that had refused to participate, arguing a binary referendum would not truly reflect the "diverse" opinions among residents.

The results showed that 72.2 percent of voters rejected the construction of a US base at Henoko, in the north of the island.

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