Tokyo to overrule referendum on US base

Fighter jets on US base in OkinawaImage copyright
AFP

Image caption

The US base in Okinawa houses tens of thousands of troops

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said plans to relocate a US military base on the island of Okinawa will continue, despite a referendum rejecting the move.

Some 72% of voters in the non-binding poll were opposed to the construction of a new base.

Okinawa hosts the country’s largest US military presence.

In recent years, a number of accidents and crimes have led to growing local opposition to the base.

On Monday, Mr Abe told journalists the government takes the referendum result seriously, but cannot delay the 20-year-old plan to move US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a new location.

“We cannot avoid the necessity of moving Futenma, said to be the most dangerous base in the world,” the prime minister said.

“We can’t put this off any longer.”

Mr Abe said he hoped local residents would understand why he had to overrule their preference.

“We have spent many years holding dialogue with people in the prefecture. We will continue our dialogue so that we can gain their understanding,” he added.

There were three options on Sunday’s ballot paper: to support or oppose the move, or neither.

According to officials, 72% of those who voted opposed the relocation, compared to 19% in favour and around 9% voting for neither. Turnout was 52%.

Okinawa governor Denny Tamaki, who was voted in on a promise to fight the relocation, urged the government in Tokyo to “accept the resolute intention” of voters and “immediately halt the construction work”.

Under a local ordinance, the governor is obliged to notify Tokyo and Washington and “respect the outcome” after more than a quarter of eligible voters rejected the proposal.

Local media said he will visit the prime minister’s office and the US embassy in Tokyo later this week. However, Japan’s central government retains the right to ignore the vote result.

Image copyright
AFP

Image caption

In 2016, tens of thousands of people joined protests against the US troops

The Futenma base is currently located in an urban part of Okinawa, and Washington wants to move it to a more remote location.

The US presence on the island is a key part of the post-war security alliance between Japan and the US, but many locals tolerate it reluctantly.

More than half of the approximately 47,000 American military personnel stationed in Japan are on Okinawa.

Resentment at the US presence rose exponentially after the 1995 gang-rape of a 12-year-old girl by US troops.

In 2016, an ex-Marine employed at one of the bases was found guilty of assaulting and killing a 20-year-old local woman and jailed for life. After his arrest, the US base imposed a temporary ban on alcohol and a midnight curfew.

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