Okinawa: Tokyo to overrule referendum on US base

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Fighter jets on US base in OkinawaImage source, 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 opposed the construction of a new base to replace the one at Futenma.

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

Okinawa hosts the bulk of US military facilities in Japan.

On Monday, Mr Abe told journalists the government took the referendum result seriously, but could not 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."

There were three options on Sunday's ballot paper: to support the move, 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" because more than a quarter of all registered voters opposed moving the base.

Local media said he would 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 source, AFP
Image caption,
In 2016, tens of thousands of people joined protests against the US troops

The Futenma base is 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 and would like the base relocated outside Okinawa.

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.