The Feb. 24 referendum in Okinawa Prefecture is the first-ever opportunity for local voters to express their opinions focusing on the single issue of whether they support the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the central Okinawa city of Ginowan to a site off the Henoko area of Nago. The result of the vote will not be legally binding for the national government and officials have already said they will proceed with the Henoko construction irrespective of the referendum’s outcome. However, ignoring the popular will of the prefecture, which hosts 70 percent of the bases solely used by the U.S. military in Japan, would not be good for the Japan-U.S. security alliance.

The relocation of the Futenma base — which was agreed on by Japan and the U.S. in 1996 on the condition that its functions would be relocated within Okinawa — continues to divide the national government and the prefecture 23 years on. While the voters of Okinawa elected two governors in succession who campaigned on the promise of stopping the relocation to Henoko — Takeshi Onaga in 2013 and Denny Tamaki last year following Onaga’s death — the national government has proceeded with the Henoko project despite strong opposition from the prefecture based on the go-ahead given to the reclamation work by their predecessor, Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima.

The plebiscite will ask Okinawans whether they support or oppose reclamation work at the Henoko site, or neither. Although the election of Onaga and Tamaki reflected local voters’ strong objections to Futenma’s relocation to Henoko, a local citizens’ group went ahead and collected enough signatures to petition to hold the plebiscite. If the answer that obtains the largest number of votes has been endorsed by at least a quarter of eligible voters, the governor must honor the results and notify the prime minister and the U.S. president of the outcome. However, the national government is not bound by the vote result.

In fact, local plebiscites in the past have not resulted in changing national government policies on issues concerning defense and foreign policy. The last prefecture-wide plebiscite was in Okinawa in 1996 following a surge in anti-U.S. base sentiment in response to the rape of a local schoolgirl by American servicemen the previous year. A majority of eligible voters endorsed a call for revising the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, and reorganizing and reducing the U.S. base presence in Okinawa. More than two decades later, SOFA remains untouched and the prefecture continues to host the bulk of the U.S. military presence in this country.

Plebiscites can sway the fate of government and business projects. A 1996 vote held in the now-defunct town of Maki, Niigata Prefecture, halted a project to build a nuclear power plant at a local site, while Tokyo Electric Power Co. was forced to give up its plan to use plutonium-uranium mixed oxide (MOX) fuel at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in that prefecture after a majority of residents opposed the plan in a 2001 plebiscite in the village of Kariwa. A 2000 plebiscite in the city of Tokushima, in which a great majority of voters expressed opposition to the construction of a new dam on the Yoshino River, subsequently led the government to abandon the plan.

In a 2006 plebiscite in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, a majority of voters opposed a plan to transfer U.S. carrier-based aircraft from the Atsugi naval base in Kanagawa Prefecture to Iwakuni. After the mayor who opposed the plan lost in a 2008 election, however, the transfer of the aircraft from Atsugi to Iwakuni was completed last March. Also in Nago, a 1997 plebiscite saw a majority of voters rejecting construction of a Futenma replacement facility for the U.S. forces in the city. But that did not stop the government from pursuing the transfer of Futenma’s functions to the Nago site.

The government maintains that the state holds sole jurisdiction over the nation’s defense and national security matters. Throughout the bitter standoff with Okinawa over the Futenma relocation issue, the government has maintained that construction of the new base for the U.S. military is indispensable from a national security viewpoint, and that building the replacement facility at the Henoko site is the only possible solution for removing the dangers posed by the Futenma base, which is located in the middle of a residential area.

True, defense and foreign policy may be the national government’s exclusive territory. At the same time, the stable operation of U.S. bases in Japan under the security alliance also depends on the understanding and cooperation of the local host governments and their residents. The will of Okinawa voters as expressed in the upcoming plebiscite should be taken seriously by the national government.

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