In a prefecture-wide referendum held Sunday, 72 percent of Okinawa’s voters expressed their opposition to the national government’s reclamation work off the coast of the Henoko area of Nago to build a replacement facility for the U.S. Marine Corp.’s Air Station Futenma. The number of “no” votes reached 434,273 — well over the 396,632 votes obtained when Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki was elected last September on a platform of halting the Henoko construction — against 114,933 “yes” votes in the first referendum to focus solely on the divisive issue. It is now the third time that Okinawa voters’ opposition to the construction of a new U.S. military facility in the Henoko area — which the government insists is the “only solution” to eliminating the dangers posed by the Futenma base in the middle of the city of Ginowan — has been demonstrated, following Tamaki’s election last year and that of his late predecessor, Takeshi Onaga, in 2014.

The outcome of Sunday’s referendum does not legally bind the national government, which has effectively rebuffed Okinawan opposition to the Henoko project on the grounds that the state holds sole jurisdiction over matters of national security, including deployment of U.S. forces in Japan under the bilateral security alliance. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he takes Sunday’s vote result seriously but reiterated that relocation of the Futenma functions to the Henoko site cannot wait any longer. The government, however, should think hard about the wisdom of building a new U.S. military facility over the strong opposition of the host prefecture and its people.

It was 1996 when the Japanese and U.S. governments agreed on returning the Futenma site to Japan — on the condition that the base’s functions would be relocated within Okinawa Prefecture. The accord was intended as part of the effort to reorganize and reduce the huge presence of U.S. military bases in Okinawa — in response to a flare-up of anti-U.S. base sentiments in the wake of the rape of a local schoolgirl by U.S. servicemen.

The outcome of the referendum 23 years on, however, indicates that Okinawa voters do not view Futenma’s relocation to Henoko as a reduction in their disproportionate burden of hosting the U.S. bases in this country. Responding to Sunday’s vote, Abe said that his administration would continue all it could do to lessen the U.S. bases’ burden on Okinawa. But Okinawa, which remained under postwar U.S. rule until 1972, continues to host roughly 70 percent of the bases solely used by U.S. forces in Japan. Opposition to the Henoko reclamation work reached 66 percent among voters in Ginowan, which hosts the Futenma airfield.

After Onaga’s predecessor, Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, gave the prefecture’s go-ahead for the reclamation work in Henoko in 2013, the government moved forward with the Henoko project irrespective of the local popular sentiment on the issue expressed in subsequent elections. It launched the preliminary work at the Henoko site just before Nakaima was replaced by Onaga in the 2014 gubernatorial election. When Onaga revoked the prefecture’s approval of the reclamation work the following year, the government entered a protracted court battle with the prefecture to override the decision — until the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government in late 2016.

The legal battle has since been repeated, with the prefecture’s attempts to halt the Henoko construction or to nullify the authorization of the reclamation work either rejected in court or invalidated by the government. The government, meanwhile, has proceeded when possible with the Henoko construction. In December it started the core part of the reclamation work, pouring soil into an area off the Henoko coast that is surrounded by a dike.

Drilling surveys of the site have reportedly shown that some parts of the site will require extra reinforcement of the seabed. The Okinawa Prefecture estimates that the Henoko construction will take 13 years to be completed and the project’s overall cost will mushroom to more than ¥2.5 trillion, several times higher than in the government’s initial forecast. The government says the prefecture’s estimate is exaggerated, although it accepts that the seabed reinforcement work will delay construction of the site and increase the expenses.

Diplomacy and national security are indeed the state’s exclusive jurisdiction. At the same time, the stable operation of the U.S. bases in Japan, which sustain the bilateral security alliance, depends a lot on the understanding and support of the host local governments and residents. The outcome of the referendum may embolden the prefecture to take further legal steps to stop the project, likely intensifying the divide between the state and Okinawa and possibly involving more court battles — which would do the bilateral security alliance no good.

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