Okinawans reject US base relocation

NOT BINDING::Seventy-two percent of voters opposed a plan to build a US Marine Corps base on reclaimed land in coastal Henoko to replace another base in Futenma


Tue, Feb 26, 2019 - Page 5

The residents of Japan’s southwestern island region of Okinawa rejected a relocation plan for a US military base in a referendum, increasing pressure on the national government to change its stance that the facility will be built no matter what.

The results of Sunday’s vote showed that 72 percent opposed the plan for the US Marine Corps air base being built on reclaimed land in coastal Henoko District in Nago.

Support for the relocation plan totaled 19 percent.

The referendum is not legally binding, but underlines Okinawans’ sentiment on the relocation plan.

Henoko is to replace another base on the island in Futenma that is in a more residential area and has long been criticized as noisy and dangerous.

The US military, while declining comment on the referendum, has said the Henoko agreement is needed for regional security.

Critics of Henoko have said that marine life, such as the manatee-relative dugong and coral reefs, would be hurt.

Many people in Okinawa want Futenma closed, but think that the rest of Japan should help by sharing in the burden of hosting US troops.

Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki, who spearheaded the referendum, said that the results must be respected.

“This holds extremely important meaning,” he said yesterday after the tally came in.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe early yesterday told reporters that the Japanese government accepted the feelings of Okinawa residents, but added that the Henoko plan would not be changed.

The Japanese government has repeatedly said the relocation plan will move ahead, regardless of the referendum.

Nevertheless, the referendum would add momentum to Tamaki’s renewed efforts against the US bases. The sentiments have resonated not only with the residents of the subtropical islands of Okinawa, but also the rest of Japan and internationally.

Tamaki has said he hopes to deliver the results of the referendum to US President Donald Trump.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga reiterated Abe’s view, telling reporters that Futenma remains dangerous and the relocation is needed to close Futenma.

He hopes to discuss with Tamaki what he might have in mind for Futenma, Suga said.

He also said that the government would step up efforts to win understanding from Okinawa residents.

The relocation plan has its beginnings in 1995, when outrage erupted against US service members over the rape of a 12-year-old girl. Washington also agreed to transfer some personnel to the US Pacific territory of Guam.

Nearly 1.16 million residents were eligible to vote in Sunday’s referendum.

Although Okinawa makes up less than 1 percent of Japan’s land area, it hosts about half of the 54,000 US troops stationed in Japan and is home to 64 percent of the land used by the US bases in the country under a bilateral security treaty.

Complicating matters is the historical suffering of Okinawa, where huge civilian casualties were recorded in the closing days of World War II.