Residents of Japan‘s Okinawa have voted in a closely watched referendum on the relocation of a US military base to a remote part of the island.
The referendum on Sunday is not binding, but interest is high for testing public sentiment about the plan to relocate Futenma airbase from a heavily-populated part of Okinawa to a coastal landfill about 50km away, in an area called Henoko.
The plan was first agreed to in 1996 when outrage erupted against United States service members over the gang rape of a 12-year-old girl.
But the plan has long been stalled in part due to local opposition over problems ranging from noise and military accidents to damage to coral reefs from land reclamation.
Sunday’s referendum asks residents whether they support the relocation plan pushed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe‘s government, with the answers being: “I agree”, ”I oppose”, and “Neither”.
About 1.15 million Okinawans were eligible to vote in the referendum. Polls closed at 8pm local time (11:00 GMT), with official results expected from as early as midnight local time (around 15:00 GMT).
“We usually shout no to the new base construction. This is a good opportunity to tell the government directly with concrete numbers: ‘No’. This is an important vote,” 32-year-old Narumi Haine told AFP.
Although the referendum is not legally binding, “it is significant that people in Okinawa can express their will through the vote,” said Jun Shimabukuro, a professor at Ryukyu University in Okinawa.
“It can be a test to gauge if democracy is working in Japan,” Shimabukuro told AFP before voting opened.
Although Okinawa makes up less than one percent of Japan’s land area, it houses about half of the 54,000 American troops stationed in Japan and makes for 64 percent of the land used by the US bases, under a bilateral security treaty.
Japan relies heavily on the US for its defence, and the government has said it will not abide by the referendum, even if the Henoko plan is rejected.
Over the years, Henoko has drawn countless protests and sit-ins.
The election last year of Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki, whose father is a Marine he has never met and his mother a Japanese national, has injected renewed energy to the movement.
Tamaki has urged residents to turn out and cast their “precious votes” in the poll.
Japanese media surveys have shown voters are likely to reject the Henoko plan. An opinion poll by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper this week found 59 percent of people in Okinawa oppose the reclamation while 16 percent support it.
The survey also found 80 percent of respondents want Abe’s government to respect the results.
Colonel John Hutcheson, spokesman for US Forces Japan, said the Henoko agreement is a bilateral deal aimed at closing Futenma while maintaining what he called vital capabilities for regional security. He declined to comment on the referendum, saying it was a domestic political issue.
“We are committed to maintaining good relations with local communities on Okinawa and do our best every day to balance their concerns with the necessity to maintain readiness in support of our treaty commitments,” he said.