Residents of Japan’s Okinawa island chain yesterday elected a governor who opposes plans to relocate a US military base, reports said, in a fresh setback for efforts to resolve a thorny issue in bilateral military relations.
Voters in the southern island chain elected Takeshi Onaga, public broadcaster NHK, Jiji Press and private broadcaster Nippon Televison reported, citing their exit polls.
Opinion polls had forecast victory for the former Naha mayor, who waged a neck-and-neck battle against Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima — who had the backing of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan.
A win for Onaga in the prefecture in Japan’s far south is a significant blow to the central government, because the new governor could veto the landfill work needed for a new base to be built.
That would leave Abe having either to overrule locally elected officials — risking charges of authoritarianism — or reverting to the cajoling and persuading of recent years, which would not be popular with Japan’s close ally, the US.
It would also take some of the wind out of Abe’s sails just days before he is expected to announce a snap general election.
Years of deadlock on the planned base relocation have frustrated the US and been a thorn in the side of successive Japanese governments.
Okinawa is home to more than half of the 47,000 US service personnel stationed in Japan and strategically key to the US-Japan security alliance at a time of simmering tensions in the region.
However, there is widespread local hostility to the US military’s presence, with complaints over noise, the risk of accidents and a perception that the presence of so many young servicemen is a source of crime.
There have been plans for years to move the US Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station from a crowded urban area to a sparsely populated coastal district on Okinawa about 50km to the north.
However, opponents such as Onaga have said that the US base should be moved outside of Okinawa, rather than within it. Nakaima stands accused of betraying island residents after striking a deal with Tokyo last year to approve the relocation within Okinawa.
In what critics said amounted to a bribe, Abe pledged a huge cash injection to the local economy in return for Nakaima reversing years of opposition to the move, which was first considered in the 1990s.
The base sits in a residential district whose inhabitants angrily recall a 2004 military helicopter crash on the grounds of a university and who resent the sound of roaring engines meters from their homes.
Nakaima has said the relocation plan is the only realistic option to eliminate the perceived dangers of the Futenma base.
In talks with US President Barack Obama yesterday, Abe stressed the importance of the security alliance, but also called for US cooperation in “easing Okinawa’s burden” of hosting US forces as part of a wider realignment plan, Japanese media outlets reported.
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