Japanese PM Abe set to ignore local referendum on US Okinawa military base relocation

US Marine V-22 Osprey aircraft sit on the tarmac at the Futenma base © AFP /Toru Yamanaka / Free

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said his government will press ahead with the controversial relocation of a US military base on the island of Okinawa, despite local objection.

Okinawa is home to two-thirds of the US’ Japanese bases. Tokyo wants to relocate one of these – US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, located in a densely populated area – to the more remote coastal area of Henoko. While residents near the base have been angered by a series of aircraft accidents, they also oppose the relocation to Henoko, claiming that planned land-reclamation works there will devastate the coral-rich coastal environment.

Okinawans will vote on the relocation on Sunday in a non-binding referendum, with nearly 70 percent expected to vote ‘No,’ according to a poll by Kyodo News. Okinawa’s Governor Denny Tamaki, who campaigned on an anti-base platform last year, has also traveled to Washington DC to lobby against the move.

The Japanese government intends to go ahead with the relocation “without being swayed by referendum results,” Abe told parliament on Wednesday.

Many Okinawans are unhappy with the base’s current location, as well as the planned relocation. They hope a ‘No’ vote will force the government to move the base off the island altogether.

The behavior of US troops stationed on Okinawa has also incensed locals, with the 1995 kidnap and gang-rape of a 12-year-old girl by three US soldiers triggering mass protests on the island. Two cases of rape and murder by US troops again caused protests in 2016. One year later, Okinawa was back in the news after a drunk Marine plowed his truck into another vehicle while running a red light, killing an elderly Japanese man.

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