As attention begins to turn to an earlier-than-expected gubernatorial election in Okinawa Prefecture in the wake of Gov. Takeshi Onaga’s untimely death, we must not lose sight of the more important vote at stake that is slowly and quietly working its way through the process.

That vote is a prefectural referendum on the relocation of the functions of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the shores of Camp Schwab in northern Okinawa. It would be the first vote at the prefectural level specifically on the planned move to the Henoko area.

While it would be the first time for all voters in Okinawa to register their opinion on the relocation plan, there was a plebiscite almost 21 years ago in December 1997 for the residents of Nago, the municipality to receive the Futenma replacement facility, to express their feelings. There was also a prefecturewide referendum the year before, in September 1996, on a variety of questions concerning U.S. bases and their operations, but it did not concern the Futenma replacement facility specifically, in part because no official decision had been reached on the site of the relocation.

It was this Okinawa Prefecture Referendum of 1996 that started a wave of referendums concerning U.S. bases, with Nago following in 1997, and then the city of Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, (concerning the relocation of a U.S. Navy carrier wing to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni) in March 2006.

There was a hiatus of several years on base-related referendums, but in February 2015 residents of Yonaguni Island in Okinawa Prefecture went to the polls to vote on the establishment of a Ground Self-Defense Force coastal observation unit on the otherwise undefended island.

As such, if another referendum is held, it will be the fifth base-related vote (the fourth on U.S. bases) overall, and the fourth to be held specifically in Okinawa.

There has been talk for years on the need for a new prefecture referendum, but the zigzag of politics there — changing from “conservative” to “progressive” governors and mayors over the years — has produced a maze that confuses voters and policymakers alike. A chart I made while working for the U.S. Marines from 2009 to 2015 of major related elections out to 2025 was in high demand, and another chart explaining who aligned where (pro or con) on the Futenma replacement facility from the central government down to the Nago mayor and assembly visibly demonstrated where the fissures existed and what it would take to get agreement and hence movement again. Currently, the central government and the cities of Ginowan and Nago are on the same page once again, but the missing element has been Okinawa Prefecture.

What happens at the gubernatorial election (and the by-election to select a new mayor of Ginowan, made necessary when the current mayor announced he was running to fill the vacant governor’s office) becomes all the more interesting when viewed through this “alignment chart.”

Another method to challenge the central government’s efforts to implement the Futenma replacement facility has been to use the courts, but in general the Okinawa Prefectural Government and its anti-base supporters have been unsuccessful, although they have been able to slow down the process.

Thus, the last means to be employed was a referendum, but this has always been a card in the pockets of the anti-base forces. In April, organizers established a citizens’ group called the Henoko Kenmin Tohyo no Kai (Henoko Okinawa Prefectural People’s Referendum Association) and began collecting signatures in May. At a news conference in the prefectural capital of Naha on July 30, the group announced that by July 23 it had collected more than 100,000 signatures, which represents almost 10 percent of the voting population in Okinawa, much more than the 2 percent required to petition the governor to submit a referendum ordinance to the prefectural assembly. It was, however, under the 115,000 they had hoped to get. Still, not bad for 10 weeks’ work.

The assembly is controlled by members close to Onaga and his anti-base “All Okinawa” united front. This makes it likely that if the signatures were verified by a public elections commission and given to the governor, and he in turn submitted the petition and draft ordinance to the assembly, the assembly would approve holding a referendum at taxpayer expense perhaps as early as December, after the gubernatorial contest that had been planned for November.

Onaga’s early passing, however, has changed the initial schedule. At this point, it is unclear if the organizers of the referendum, led by a founding member of the now-defunct Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy and its sister organization SEALDs Ryukyus, will petition the acting governor, himself handpicked by Onaga, or wait until the results of the gubernatorial election now scheduled for Sept. 30, which might be riskier if a conservative candidate wins and he delays the process further.

Despite the anti-base nature of the group organizing the referendum, I personally am in favor of it as it would give the voters of the prefecture their first chance to really vote on the Futenma replacement facility in a way that normal elections do not. The results are expected to be nonbinding, but the draft ordinance requires the governor to “respect” them.

Conservatives in general dislike referendums, viewing them as circumventing representative democracy, but they can also be used to affirm decisions as well. When conservatives participated proactively in past referendums (such as in Nago and on Yonaguni) they demonstrated that support does actually exist (losing barely in Nago but winning by a large margin on Yonaguni). (For details, see my study, “Four Base Referendums in Japan: Challenging State Authority” in the proceedings of the International Conference on Multicultural Democracy, available at bit.ly/fourbase .)

In this sense, if conservatives and others truly believe in the Henoko plan (which this author does not for dozens of reasons I have previously outlined in these pages), then they can use this referendum once and for all to show their support.

If they boycott it or otherwise do not participate, on the other hand, the anti-base folks are sure to win (as they did in the 1996 prefectural referendum and 2006 Iwakani one) further confusing the situation.

The central government as well should embrace the idea of a referendum and go out of its way to make its case for the Futenma replacement facility (which, admittedly, is a near-impossible task). Both it and the U.S. government have done a horrible job over the past 22 years of explaining the Futenma replacement facility, hiding behind the phrase “it is the best plan,” which it is clearly not. (Think of the more than 30 defense ministers, 30 foreign ministers, 30 chief Cabinet secretaries, 30 Okinawa ministers, etc., who have made this statement to date without much or any substance.)

If conducted properly, this referendum — the fifth to date on the bases — may be the most significant of all and bring political and policy clarity to the debate.

Eldridge is a former political adviser for the U.S. Marine Corps in Japan and the author of over 70 books dealing with U.S.-Japan relations, Okinawa, and Japanese political and diplomatic history, including “The Origins of the Bilateral Okinawa Problem” (Routledge, 2001).

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