NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – More than 70 percent of voters in Okinawa on Sunday voted against a plan to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Ginowan to Henoko — a coastal area in the northeastern part of the main island — in a closely watched prefecture-wide referendum that was the first of its kind on the issue.
According to the Okinawa Prefectural Government, turnout hit 52.48 percent, topping the 50 percent threshold — a line seen by observers as lending legitimacy to the referendum.
The prefectural government said the number of “no” votes stood at 434,273 or 72.2 percent of the total voters, and surpassed 396,632, the figure Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki garnered in last September’s gubernatorial election when he campaigned on a platform of blocking the relocation plan.
Some 19.1 percent voted in favor of the plan while 8.7 percent voted “neither” in the referendum.
“This is a big step for the development of democracy in Okinawa. I want the central government to respect the will of the Okinawan people,” Jinshiro Motoyama, who led the effort to hold the referendum, said as the votes were still being officially counted late Sunday.
Voters in all of Okinawa’s 41 cities, towns and villages were asked if they support the bilateral plan, oppose it, or neither.
With more than a fourth of eligible voters, or roughly 290,000 people, the vote must be respected by Tamaki and reported to the central government and the United States.
Tamaki now has such a mandate, as the “no” choice secured more than a quarter of all eligible voters.
Among those who voted against the plan, about 82 percent polled by Kyodo News said they want the central government to respect the outcome of the referendum.
Despite the rejection, the outcome is legally nonbinding. The central government, pushing hard to complete construction of an offshore replacement facility beside Camp Schwab, has said it will ignore the result and go ahead with construction.
However, with most voting “no,” the result is likely to embolden the anti-Henoko faction led by Tamaki and potentially lead to further efforts by the prefecture to use legal means to delay or halt construction. The central government began landfill work for the project in December.
The Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito had been hostile to the idea of a referendum, which was supported by Tamaki and the majority of the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly.
Last month, five LDP-friendly cities, including Ginowan, indicated they would not participate in the referendum unless the third option of “neither” was put on the ballot. They cited the complexity of the issue, saying it was not black and white for many of their residents.
After the referendum, proponents agreed to include the “neither” option, the five cities agreed to participate and the referendum took place in all cities, towns and villages in the island prefecture.
The first prefecture-wide referendum on the relocation plan came about two decades after the United States and Japan agreed to relocate Futenma air base to Henoko, a contentious policy that has been stymied by entrenched opposition from Okinawan anti-base activists, politicians, bureaucrats and business leaders over the years.
In 1996, a nonbinding referendum was held on the more general issue of consolidating U.S. military bases in Okinawa. While 53 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in favor of consolidation, over a third abstained.
In 1997, another nonbinding referendum was held in Nago specifically for the relocation plan. A majority opposed relocation, but the plan moved forward anyway.
Since taking office in 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has insisted, in line with previous LDP administrations, that the Henoko plan is the only option for relocating Futenma.