TOKYO (Reuters) – Okinawa assembly members who want to see a U.S. military base removed from the southern Japanese island won a majority in the prefectural assembly election, emboldening the anti-U.S. base movement.

The result announced on Monday means Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga will likely redouble his efforts to move the Futenma airbase off the island altogether, setting the stage for a prolonged fight with the central government.

Sunday’s vote on the island, host to the bulk of U.S. forces in Japan, came after a series of crimes and other incidents involving U.S. soldiers and base workers reignited resentment against the U.S. presence.

A U.S. Air Force's F-22 Raptor jet takes off at Kadena U.S. Air Force Base on Japan's southwestern island of Okinawa June 15, 2009. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao
A U.S. Air Force’s F-22 Raptor jet takes off at Kadena U.S. Air Force Base on Japan’s southwestern island of Okinawa June 15, 2009. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

Of 48 seats up for grabs, candidates supporting Onaga, who is at loggerheads with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government over plans to relocate the base within Okinawa, won 27 seats, up from 23 seats before the vote, public broadcaster NHK said.

The United States and Japan agreed in 1996 to close the U.S. Marines’ Futenma airbase, which is in an urban area of Okinawa, and move its facilities elsewhere on the island, but the plan stalled due to opposition from residents worried about noise, pollution and crime.

That decision followed the rape of a Japanese schoolgirl by U.S. military personnel which sparked huge anti-base demonstrations. Further stoking local anger, a 32-year-old American civilian working at a U.S. base was arrested last month in connection with the murder of a Japanese woman.

Rina Shimabukuro
Murder victim Rina Shimabukuro

Last month’s arrest prompted the U.S. military to announce a 30-day period of mourning and restriction on off-base drinking on the island. But a U.S. sailor was arrested in Okinawa on Sunday on suspicion of drunk driving following a car crash.

Onaga called the election result a “great victory” but Tokyo remains committed to the plan to move the base to the Henoko area of the city of Nago in central Okinawa.

“There is no change to our stance that the shift to Henoko is the only solution when we think about maintaining the deterrence of the U.S.-Japan alliance and removing the risks of the Futenma airbase,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference.

The local vote came a month ahead of an upper house election in July.

Okinawa, the site of a brutal battle won by U.S. forces in World War Two, hosts 50,000 U.S. nationals, including 30,000 military personnel and civilians employed at U.S. bases.

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka and Tim Kelly; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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