Iwakuni vote won’t halt U.S. move: Abe

by Reiji Yoshida

The central government will go ahead with plans to move 57 U.S. carrier-based warplanes and support personnel to the U.S. Marine Corps Iwakuni Air Station in Yamaguchi Prefecture, despite the overwhelming opposition expressed in a nonbinding local plebiscite, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said Monday.

The aircraft, off the carrier USS Kitty Hawk, are to be relocated from the Atsugi Naval Air Facility in Kanagawa Prefecture, the top government spokesman said.

Some 87.4 percent of 49,681 Iwakuni residents who went to the polls Sunday said “no” to the planned relocation, which was agreed to and announced by Japan and the United States in an October interim report on U.S. military realignment. The plebiscite turnout rate was 58.68 percent.

The result of the symbolic plebiscite — while not unexpected — throws a wet blanket over the the central government’s efforts to persuade a number of local governments to accept relocation plans as part of the ongoing realignment of U.S. forces in the country.

“Basically, if Japan and the U.S. complete negotiations, that would be the final conclusion” of the issue, Abe told a regular news conference Monday, stressing the plebiscite will not affect the central government’s decision.

“We have to clearly explain that to the local (residents),” he said.

According to the final tally, those against the proposal outnumbered those who approved 43,433 to 5,369. The remaining 1.8 percent of the votes were not valid.

While on the one hand continuing negotiations with local governments, the central government and Washington are working to finalize the realignment plan in a final report to be released by the end of this month.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said Monday the plan would not change regardless of the Iwakuni poll.

“(The schedule) won’t be changed,” Koizumi told reporters Monday. “Any (local resident) would oppose (a plan to introduce a U.S. military installation) if asked. That’s the difficult part of national security.”

In the city of Yamaguchi, Gov. Sekinari Nii told reporters Monday: “I anticipated an overwhelming majority would say no. (The prefecture) will respect the opinion of Iwakuni (residents) expressed in the plebiscite outcome.”

The city is expected to submit its official view on the relocation plan to the prefecture Wednesday. Nii indicated the prefecture will submit its own view to the central government as early as next week after hearing what Iwakuni has to say.

Annoyed by noise pollution, many Atsugi residents have long called for the removal of the U.S. aircraft from the air station, which is jointly used by Maritime Self-Defense Force aircraft.

The Atsugi facility accommodates aircraft off carriers when they enter the strategically important U.S. Navy base at Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.

“The relocation of carrier-based airplanes to Iwakuni is a plan we have to surely realize, considering Japan’s national security, the maintenance of (military) deterrence and the reduction of the burden on local residents,” Defense Agency chief Fukushiro Nukaga said in a statement Sunday night after the plebiscite’s results were announced.

Information from Kyodo added