IWAKUNI, Yamaguchi Pref. — A majority of Iwakuni residents voted “no” in a closely watched plebiscite Sunday, rejecting the central government’s plan to move 57 U.S. warplanes and 1,600 additional marines to the area, according to partial vote counts and exit polls.

According to Iwakuni City Hall, 21,000 residents had voted “no” and 3,000 “yes” as of 10:30 p.m. Sunday, with 48.31 percent of the votes counted.

The Iwakuni plebiscite was the first held since Japan and the United States agreed to restructure U.S. bases last October. Although the result is nonbinding, the vote was closely watched by leaders in both countries.

Both Tokyo and Washington fear that a rejection by Iwakuni will prompt other municipalities where opposition is strong to take similar action.

Sunday’s cold and gloomy weather had those who pushed for the plebiscite concerned that turnout by Iwakuni’s roughly 85,000 eligible voters would fall below the 50 percent needed for the mayor to declare it valid.

The turnout was tallied at 58.68 percent.

Voting began at 7 a.m. at 42 different locations and ended at 8 p.m. Kyodo exit polls showed voters had overwhelmingly rejected the plan.

“Between the noise from the jets and the likely rise in crime due to more marines, it’s clear that agreeing to the central government’s plan for relocation will do more harm than good for the town,” said Kimiko Yamakawa, a 68-year-old resident who voted against the plan.

Toranosuke Katayama, a powerful member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, down played the outcome of the plebiscite.

“The state is responsible for security. A plebiscite (on such an issue) is not appropriate,” he told reporters.

Katayama, secretary general of the LDP’s caucus in the House of Councilors, said he considers the result “a kind of regional egoism.”

At issue was whether Iwakuni would accept the transfer of about 1,600 Marines and 57 carrier-based jets to Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station from Atsugi Naval Air base, a move Japan and the U.S. agreed on last October as part of a broader realignment of U.S. forces. There are already about 3,000 marines and 53 aircraft at Iwakuni air station.

Angered by what he said was insufficient prior consultation on the part of the central government, Iwakuni Mayor Katsusuke Ihara immediately voiced his opposition to the realignment plan and decided to take the issue directly to the people.

“The 50 percent hurdle was a tough one to get over. But the high level of interest in this issue, and the clear understanding of its importance, led to people coming to the polls despite the weather,” Ihara said at a news conference Sunday evening.

Although he pushed hard for the plebiscite, Ihara said the result would not necessarily be the final word on the matter.

“The people of Iwakuni understand the importance of the Japanese-U.S. alliance,” Ihara said. “The plebiscite is not the ultimate decision on the issue, but we want the voice of local residents to be reflected in the central government’s decision on the issue. That’s what democracy is all about.”

The plebiscite generated controversy within Iwakuni itself.

The majority of the Iwakuni Municipal Assembly opposed the mayor’s decision, saying a plebiscite should be discussed after the central government releases a final report on the realignment plans at the end of this month.

In the days before the election, opponents of the plebiscite encouraged voters to boycott Sunday’s poll.

In addition, some who favor hosting additional U.S. troops for economic reasons were upset at the way the plebiscite was carried out.

Voters were only asked if they agreed or disagreed with the central government’s plan to relocate the planes and troops.

“The issue is far more complicated than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ ” said Yasuhiro Hayashi, who owns a small restaurant near the Iwakuni train station. “Hosting the bases would mean additional revenue for the city, both from the base itself and from central government subsidies. This money is desperately needed for the local economy.”

From early morning, volunteers stood in front of major shopping centers and on street corners, encouraging residents to cast their ballots.

“We were worried the weather might be keeping people at home, so we’ve redoubled our efforts,” said Masaki Ito, an antibase activist.

Information from Kyodo added.

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