Residents of Okinawa went to the polls yesterday in an election that has become a referendum on whether to continue shouldering one of the US military's key overseas deployments.
Okinawans, voting for a new governor, were being asked to choose between the economic benefits the bases provide and the burden of being host to some three-quarters of the US military facilities in Japan.
Keiko Itokazu -- who is backed by Japan's main opposition and would be the islands' first female governor -- wants to scale back the presence of US troops.
"I believe the only way for Okinawa to achieve economic independence is by getting the lands back from the US military bases and using them more productively for industry," she said on Saturday to hundreds of supporters.
Polls show her running neck-and-neck with Hirokazu Nakaima, who is supported by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and seeks to replace fellow conservative Keiichi Inamine.
Nakaima has played down the base issue and focused on improving the economy, where unemployment runs twice the national average.
"Basically, negotiations with the United States will be through the central government," Nakaima said after casting his vote.
Okinawa is home to more than half of the 40,000 US troops in Japan. Tokyo and the US agreed in May to pull out 8,000 of the 20,000 troops from Okinawa to Guam, in the most sweeping movement of troops in decades.