The US Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Despite a local referendum on Sunday that found 70% of Okinawans are opposed to a controversial US base being moved to a different part of the island, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears set to ignore the results and go ahead with the base’s relocation.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Abe said the move of Futenma, a US Marine Corps air station, “cannot be postponed any further,” but that he would make “all out efforts to alleviate the base-hosting burden,” according to the Mainichi newspaper.

Given that the number of registered voters on Okinawa rejecting the base plan exceeded one-quarter, Okinawa’s anti-base Governor Denny Tamaki is required to abide by the outcome. Some 52% of voters turned out; only 19% voted in favor of the new base.

“I will strongly demand that the government squarely face the resolute will of our people, review its present policy immediately and halt the construction,” Temaki said after the result.

Local vs. center

Tamaki is reportedly set to visit Abe’s office and the US Embassy in Tokyo later this week. He is expected to convey the outcome of the referendum, and – empowered by it – seek dialogue and concessions.

His mission is a ticklish one. According to the Mainichi, the Okinawan plebiscite is not binding upon Tokyo, and on Monday, Abe seemed unwilling to compromise, saying the dangers posed by the current Futenma base must be eased, and that its relocation to a new site, originally agreed upon by Tokyo and Washington over two decades years ago, can no longer be delayed.

Tokyo insists that the relocation plan is “the only solution” for Futenma, if the Japan-US security alliance – the cornerstone of Japan’s national defense strategy and policy – is to be maintained.

“Okinawa is going to feel that Tokyo is oppressing them, as Denny Temaki campaigned for governor crusading against the new base,  and so it makes it more difficult to push this thing through,”  Don Kirk, author of “Okinawa and Jeju: Bases of Discontent” told Asia Times. “Central government is going to say, ‘It is just the [Okinawan] vote and it is not binding at all,’ and the Okinawans are going to continue protesting against the bases – led by Denny Temaki.”

The move to shift Futenma from its current location to the Henoko district of Nago, a  coastal zone in the island’s northeast, has raised the ire of international environmentalists as well as locals. Henoko is a site of rare corals and home to dugong, a marine mammal related to the manatee.

The current Futenma base is surrounded on all sides by local urban sprawl, raising fears about the risk of a major accident.

More broadly, there has long been feeling on Okinawa that the island – the site of a particularly murderous battle in World War II – is hosting more than its fair share of US troops and assets compared to the mainland. Those beliefs were intensified in a notorious incident in 1995, when a local teen was raped by three US servicemen.

Local vs. geopolitics

However Okinawa, which lies 1,500 km south-west of Tokyo and astride key maritime trade routes, is strategically positioned in a way that the mainland is not.

It provides an ideal location for Japan and the United States to monitor (or possibly control) Chinese naval assets as they leave bases on China’s coast and head for the Northern and Western Pacific, and provides a backstop for any potential defense for Taiwan. The US Marines on the island are also a critical maneuver force Washington could deploy should warfare revisit the Korean peninsula.

“This [referendum result] was no surprise; Okinawans say there are bearing a disproportionately high part of the defense burden post-1945,” William Choong of the International Institute for Strategic Studies told Asia Times. “Nobody disagrees with Abe that you need Okinawa – it is near the East China Sea and Taiwan and the geo-strategic logic is watertight – but this is where local politics runs into geopolitics.”

Okinawa’s location suggests any major relocation of US assets to mainland Japan to placate islanders is not on the cards.

“So much trade passes through the South and East China Seas, so having the bases there to secure those sea lanes – you don’t have to be a strategic genius to see how important it is,” added Daniel Pinkston, an international relations expert at Troy University. “The alternatives or substitutes are not so great.”

Following Sunday’s referendum, the ever-problematic ties between Tokyo and Okinawa look likely to fray further.

“Japan took over Ryukyus in the 17th century and completed it in the 19th century and the Ryukyu people are no more,” said author Kirk, referring to the old Ryukyu Kingdom, of which Okinawa was the main component. “They speak Japanese and are Japanese citizens, but look upon Japan as the country up north, while Japan looks on Okinawa as an inferior possession.”

Even so, the latest development in the Okinawan-Tokyo-Washington political saga could provide momentum for related authorities to lessen the intrusiveness of US bases on the island

“Traveling around the island and going on the bases, it seems the arrangement the bases are, for some parts and some locations, obstructive,’ said Pinkston. “I think it is possible to reduce the footprint and make it more sustainable and less intrusive on the population,” Pinkston said.

But IISS’s Choong is unsure quite what Tokyo can offer, given the emotive nature of the issue locally.

Calling the situation’s politics a “lose-lose for Abe,” Choong said, “I don’t know what kind of goodies and freebies Abe can put on the table beyond monetary incentives; there is deeply ingrained sentiment against the US presence on Okinawa.”

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