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Japan to go ahead with US base move in Okinawa despite locals' objection

Xinhua | Updated: 2019-02-25 19:24
File photo: A Lockheed Martin F-35B stealth fighter is seen on the USS Wasp (LHD 1) amphibious assault carrier during their operation in the waters off Japan's southernmost island of Okinawa March 23, 2018. [Photo/Agencies]

TOKYO - The majority of voters in a referendum in Japan's Okinawa rejected the central government's plans to relocate a controversial US airbase within the southernmost prefecture, local media reported Monday after final tallies were counted.

Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe said on Monday that while continuing to seek dialogue with the local people, the move would go ahead.

The Japanese premier said the government will do its utmost to try and ease Okinawa's disproportionate US base-hosting burdens, but underscored that more than 20 years had already passed since a pact was made with the US on the unpopular base's move.

Japan's Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya, meanwhile, said the government plans to forge ahead with the contentious construction work in preparation for the new base, which involves extensive land reclamation work at Henoko, a pristine coastal region in Okinawa.

"We would like to advance the new base construction work, while explaining the necessity of the relocation plan to the Okinawa people in a polite and cordial manner to seek their understanding," Iwaya told a press briefing on Monday.

More than 70 percent of the voters rejected the government's plans to move the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the Ginowan region to the coastal Henoko area also on the island, giving the Okinawa government a stronger foothold in its campaign to block the controversial move.

In Sunday's referendum where voters were given the choice to vote "yes," "no," or "neither," as to whether they wanted to see the US base relocated on their island, the number of "no" votes came in at 72.2 percent of the total.

Those supporting the move stood at some 19.1 percent, and those who voted "neither" stood at 8.8 percent as to whether they agreed with the central government's land reclamation work in the coastal region, according to the prefectural authorities.

Exit polls also showed that not only do Okinawans not want to see any more military bases on the island, they also want the central government to respect the outcome of the prefecture-wide referendum and abandon its plans to relocate the base.

Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki attends a news conference at at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo, Japan November 9, 2018. [Photo/Agencies]

Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki who denounces the central government's plans to relocate the base, said he hoped the referendum, although not legally binding, provided local citizens with the opportunity to voice their opposition to the move.

"This is the first time that opposition specifically to the plan was clearly shown, so it bears significant meaning. I fully take the people's resolution, and strongly call on the central government to stop the relocation work," Tamaki was quoted by local media as saying, after the result of the referendum was announced.

An ordinance on the referendum maintains that Tamaki must notify Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US President Donald Trump following the outcome of the referendum.

Okinawa hosts the bulk of US military facilities in Japan, yet the tiny sub-tropical island accounts for just a small fraction of Japan's total landmass.

There have been numerous cases of the local citizens being victims of US base-linked workers' criminal activities.

These have spanned brutal rape and murder cases, instances of military personnel driving under the influence of alcohol, and cases of assault and disorderly behavior.

Okinawans have also suffered from a steady flow of accidents and mishaps involving US military aircraft, as well as environmental and noise pollution.

In addition, the new location for the base has a pristine and extremely delicate coastal ecosystem unique to Okinawa, which includes highly endangered species of marine life, and the locals and international environmentalists desperately want to protect the region.

Tamaki has said that the central government's persistent push to continue with the landfill work for the base's relocation is completely unacceptable and against the will of Okinawans who wish to see the base moved outside of Okinawa and Japan altogether, as anti-US sentiment continues to rise on the island.

Japan's central government began pouring soil into the sea for the replacement facility in December last year, much to the anger of local Okinawan residents, who feel, to a large extent, they are still under post-World War II occupation by US forces.

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