The governor of Okinawa in southern Japan said on Tuesday the region will hold a referendum on February 24 over an unpopular project to move a US airbase.
The symbolic, non-binding vote may draw renewed attention to the plight of Okinawans, who have fought against the Japanese-US joint plan to close the US Marines’ Futenma Air Station in an urban area and move it to a sparsely populated part of the island region.
It comes also after years of local protests against heavy US military presence have fallen on deaf ears in Tokyo and Washington.
Governor Denny Tamaki, elected in September after campaigning against the relocation plans, said the referendum will be an opportunity for local residents to voice their views publicly.
“It is significant as it will serve as an extremely important opportunity for local residents to articulate their wishes. I will encourage as many people as possible to participate in this exercise,” Tamaki told local journalists in Okinawa.
A vote against the proposed relocation could pile fresh pressure on the central government, which has argued that the plan is the best way to ensure Japan’s national defense while reducing the current burden on Okinawa.
Okinawa accounts for less than one percent of Japan’s total land area but hosts more than half of the approximately 47,000 American military personnel stationed in Japan.
Noise, accidents, and crimes committed by military personnel and civilian base employees have long angered local residents, as has the perceived refusal of other parts of the country to share Okinawa’s burden.
But the archipelago’s location near Taiwan has long been viewed as having huge strategic importance for US forward positioning in Asia.