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An overwhelming majority of residents in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, voted “no” in a plebiscite held Sunday on a plan to relocate 57 U.S. carrier-based aircraft and 1,600 U.S. military personnel to their city. This was the first plebiscite of its kind since Japan and the United States agreed in October to realign U.S. military bases in Japan. Although not legally binding, the plebiscite underscores Iwakuni citizens’ opposition to the highhanded manner in which the government pushed the realignment policy. The vote may also influence the attitudes of other municipalities and raise further questions about Washington and Tokyo’s plan to relocate U.S. forces in Japan rather than significantly reduce their presence.

Tokyo and Washington are scheduled to announce a final report on the base realignment plan by the end of the month. So far, however, the central government’s talks with local governments concerned have deadlocked over base relocation issues, including a proposal to move the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station heliport from a congested residential area in the central part of Okinawa Island to Camp Schwab in the northern part of the island.

Anger over what he deemed a lack of the readiness on the part of the government to have “prior consultations” with residents over the relocation plan and fears that it would greatly affect their lives prompted Iwakuni Mayor Katsusuke Ihara to hold the plebiscite. Residents were only asked to answer yes or no to the plan to move the U.S. aircraft and personnel from the U.S. Naval Air Facility Atsugi in Kanagawa Prefecture to the U.S. Marine Corps’ Iwakuni Air Station.

For the plebiscite to be valid a turnout of at least 50 percent of Iwakuni’s roughly 84,700 eligible voters was required. Despite calls by supporters of the relocation plan for residents to boycott the plebiscite, voter turnout reached 58.68 percent. Of those who came to the polls, 43,433 — 89 percent of the total valid ballots — rejected the relocation plan while 5,369 voted yes. Those who voted no accounted for 51.3 percent of eligible voters.

The government takes the position that the plebiscite does not accurately reflect the opinion of all local residents concerned. The majority of the Iwakuni Municipal Assembly opposed the mayor’s plebiscite decision. Iwakuni will merge with six other towns and a village on March 20. The seven municipalities are inclined to accept the relocation plan. Local business people share the same opinion. They are reportedly ready to accept the relocation in exchange for financial support from the government. Mayor Ihara must resign March 19 and a new mayoral election will be held April 23. The possibility that the new mayor may accept the base plan cannot be ruled out. But a plebiscite held after the merger would likely be too late given Tokyo and Washington’s schedule for the final report on the base realignment plan.

To reduce noise pollution generated by the air base, a new runway will be completed in 2009 on land reclaimed from the sea a kilometer away from the present air station, and 17 Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force aircraft and 700 personnel will be moved from Iwakuni to the MSDF’s air base in Atsugi. The U.S., however, also wants to move midair oil tankers based at Futenma Air Station to Iwakuni, scrapping the original plan to move them to the Japanese MSDF’s air base in Kanoya, Kagoshima Prefecture. It is understandable that many Iwakuni residents harbor fears of increases in noise pollution and military-related accidents.

Given the plebiscite’s results, Mayor Ihara officially requested that the central government withdraw the plan to move the aircraft and U.S. military personnel to Iwakuni. The government should deal with his request with sincerity.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe has made it clear that the plebiscite will not affect the relocation plan. Such an outcome, however, will only increase the friction between the two sides that has grown out of the central government’s failure to give a sufficient explanation to the municipal government and residents of Iwakuni before it announced the realignment plan.

Under the realignment plan, the U.S. apparently wants to strengthen the military capability of its bases to allow it to more effectively cope with contingencies that are beyond the scope envisaged by the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. Taking the rationality embraced by military planners too far, however, could conceivably weaken the bilateral relationship between Japan and the U.S. if such plans fuel resentment among local governments and residents.

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