National / Politics | ANALYSIS

After strong 'no' vote, Okinawans look to highlight case against Henoko base plan in Tokyo and Washington

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

A prefecture-wide referendum in Okinawa on Sunday demonstrated overwhelming opposition, at least among those who voted, to relocating U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Ginowan to Henoko, in the northeastern part of the main island.

But with the central government vowing to continue the project, already under construction, Okinawans opposed to the move remain committed to fighting on, both within Japan and also through making their case to the U.S.

“Now that the clear opposition of the Okinawa people has been conveyed it’s up to individuals in the rest of Japan to consider our wishes, and have a debate on national security and the relocation of Futenma outside of Okinawa Prefecture and Japan,” Jinshiro Motoyama, who spearheaded the referendum, told reporters after the vote.

Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki, who supported the referendum and opposes the Henoko move, must now convey the results of the referendum to both Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the United States. He plans to visit Tokyo later this week, and said he would move “body and soul” to keep the new base from being completed. Landfill reclamation work at Henoko began last December.

In Tokyo on Monday, Abe emphasized the need to reduce Okinawa’s burden in hosting U.S. military bases. But the central government had already said before the referendum, which is not legally binding, that its result would not impact the Henoko plan.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Abe said, “the Henoko relocation can’t be postponed.”

Results showed that 434,273, or 72.2 percent, of Okinawan voters cast their ballots against the Henoko plan. A total of 114,922, or 19 percent, supported it. Some 52,682 people, about 8.8 percent, chose the “neither” option.

That option was added after five Okinawan cities with close ties to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito threatened to opt out of the referendum if the only choices regarding the Henoko project were to “support” or “oppose.” One of the cities that demanded the “neither” option be included was Ginowan, where Futenma is located.

As the referendum was supported most strongly by Okinawans opposed to the Henoko project, the result was not unexpected. But the 52.48 percent turnout rate was lower than the 63.24 percent turnout rate for Tamaki’s election last September, and was only achieved after a final push during the last couple of days by referendum proponents to get people to the voting booth.

How the remaining 48 percent of voters who avoided the referendum feel about the Henoko issue is now a key question for the anti-base movement in Okinawa and for the ruling coalition which, even as it insists the Henoko project will continue, needs prefectural cooperation to complete it as soon as possible and faces the task of winning over Okinawan voters in this summer’s Upper House election.

Okinawan leaders said late Sunday that concluding opposition to Henoko has lessened because the referendum turnout rate was about 10 points lower than the turnout rate for the governor’s election would be a mistake.

“The reason the final turnout rate was not higher was due to a referendum boycott by the LDP. There are, in fact, many people in the LDP who are opposed to the Henoko project, but they didn’t want to say so in a public referendum,” said Okinawa Upper House member Yoichi Iha.

“While it’s true Sunday’s turnout was less than the governor’s election, you have to look at how people voted,” said Morimasa Goya, one of the referendum leaders and a strong supporter of Tamaki.

He noted there were over 430,000 votes opposing Henoko. In the 2018 election, Tamaki, running on an anti-Henoko platform, won with about 397,000 votes against an LDP candidate who didn’t mention Henoko, emphasizing instead only the need to close down Futenma.

“When the issue is just Henoko, you see a larger number of people voting no,” Goya said.

The outcome also strengthened calls among the opposition for the United States to recognize the results of Sunday’s referendum.

“From Okinawa’s viewpoint, attitudes (toward Henoko) aren’t changing at the national level. But the Trump administration also needs to understand that Sunday’s results show the will of the people is against Henoko,” said Upper House member Keiko Itokazu, from Okinawa, on Sunday night.

“If the U.S. says Henoko is not needed, the project will immediately halt,” Goya said, who added that Trump and Abe could discuss Henoko and the referendum when the president visits in May, or with Abe on the sidelines of the Group of 20 Leaders’ Summit in Osaka in June.