Okinawans will vote in a local referendum on Sunday over the landfill construction of a US Marine Corps base in Henoko, a plan that has been at the centre of controversy since its announcement in 1996.
The prefecture of Okinawa, comprising Japan‘s southernmost islands that make up just 0.6 percent of Japanese territory, is currently host to more than 74 percent of US military bases in the country.
The new base’s construction comes as part of the government’s promise to relocate the US military airbase in Futenma, a densely populated residential area, to the less-populated village of Henoko.
But the government’s relocation plan has faced long-standing opposition from Okinawan residents, who say the landfill construction will devastate the marine life in the coral-rich bay of Henoko.
Moreover, the residents argue that the plan runs counter to the government’s purported aim of “alleviating the burden” of US military bases on Okinawa, including noise pollution from military aircraft and the series of accidents and sexual assault of local residents by US military personnel.
“We’re being forced to choose between Futenma and Henoko, without the option to say we simply don’t want military bases,” says Yukiko Chinen, whose six-year-old daughter attends Midorigaoka Nursery school near Futenma air station, where an object fell onto the school’s roof from a US helicopter last year.
US military aircraft have reportedly continued to fly over the school premises since the accident.
“For me, the referendum is a fight for that option, to get beyond the idea that we have to somehow give up one or the other,” she added.
While the referendum is non-binding, its proponents believe that the prefectural vote could add to the mounting pressure on the Japanese government to halt the multibillion-dollar project, which has continued despite the overwhelming victory of Okinawan Governor Denny Tamaki, who ran on an anti-base platform last fall.
In a recent poll conducted by Ryukyu Shimpo and Okinawa Times, nearly 70 percent of the voters said they are planning to vote against the construction of the base in the referendum, which gives them three choices: for, against or neither.
‘Right to choose’
The call for a referendum in Okinawa began in the fall of 2017, when a 27-year-old graduate student, Jinshiro Motoyama, started organising public meetings to discuss the possibility of an island-wide referendum with local residents.
“There was a certain sense of resignation among people around me, that there was nothing we could do about the bases,” says Motoyama, who grew up in Ginowan city near Futenma air station.
“I thought a referendum in Okinawa could give people a chance to talk to one another and share their experiences about the realities we are facing,” he added.
After establishing the Henoko Okinawa referendum committee, the group headed by Motoyama and supporters of the referendum collected more than 100,000 signatures on petitions, quickly surpassing the 23,000 needed to put the relocation plan to a prefectural vote.
The move, however, also met some pushback, not only from supporters of the base project, but even from those opposed to the construction, who feared a negative outcome could be a setback for anti-base efforts.
“Those were difficult conversations for sure,” says Motoyama. “But I think it’s important for Okinawans to keep having these conversations, to listen to each other and bridge the divide.”
For Motoyama, the referendum is ultimately as much about the process as it is about its outcome.
“It’s not just about political impact,” he tells Al Jazeera. “What’s important is getting people to realise that we have a voice in the matter. We have a right to choose.”
‘Break the cycle’
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made it clear that his administration would push forward with the construction project regardless of the outcome of the referendum.
In Henoko, the government continues to deploy hundreds of riot police from across the country to suppress the peaceful protests held daily at the construction site.
The Japanese government’s disregard for Okinawan public opinion and the disproportionate US presence on the islands has its roots in the islands’ history.
Originally belonging to an independent kingdom, the Ryukyu islands were invaded by Japanese forces in 1609 and annexed in 1879.
During the second world war, the islands became the site of one of the bloodiest ground battles between Japan and the US, in which one in four Okinawans lost their lives.
The island came under US control after Japan’s defeat in the war. Even after Okinawa was “reverted back” to Japanese rule in 1972, US military bases continue to take up 18 percent of the land on Okinawa’s main island.
“It’s been almost 50 years since the ‘reversion’ of Okinawa and the government is still trying to build a new military base,” says Masaya Kinjo, 54, who has been participating in the daily sit-ins in Henoko since 2016.
“With this referendum, I want the world to know that what’s happening in Okinawa has been going on for generations.”
This weekend, supporters of the referendum have organised a 70km march across Okinawa as a way to encourage voters to head to the ballot box.
For Chinen, who plans to participate in the march with her little daughter, the referendum is part of a larger movement.
“When my daughter grows up, I want her world to be different from the one I grew up with,” she tells Al Jazeera. “We’re fighting to break the cycle.”