Okinawans Vote On Henoko US Base Relocation

On Sunday, Okinawans will vote in a non-binding referendum on the fate of the Futenma airbase relocation. The government has recently expressed plans to move the air-base that has existed since 1945 50km away from Okinawa to a more remote coastal landfill called Henoko. Around 1.15 million people are eligible to vote in the referendum on the controversial Henoko air-base construction plan, with a reported 20.5% having already cast a ballot during the early voting on Saturday. The ballet has three available options on the preferences: “I accept”, “I Refuse” and “Neither”.

Narumi Haine, a 32-year-old local, explained the long history of resistance to the base’s construction. In a statement to AFP, she remarked that “We usually shout no to the new base construction. This is a good opportunity to tell the government directly with concrete numbers: ‘No’. This is an important vote.” A spokesman for the United States Armed Forces, Colonel John Hutchinson, also recognized the controversy, stating that “We are committed to maintaining good relations with local communities on Okinawa and do our best every day to balance their concerns with the necessity to maintain readiness in support of our treaty commitments.”

There has always been strong local resistance to the building of the new air-field on Henoko. In a 2015 survey, as many as 76.1% of Okinawans were found to be against the construction of a new military base, which would take up more space on an island already home to many military structures and bases. Many have spoken out against the structure’s construction, as there is the open intention to build the second base since 1996. There was strong resistance by local Okinawans to the construction of a base in Henoko even when plans were first being suggested. Given past resistance, the plans for relocation may best remain unfulfilled.

The relocation of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the Henoko region has been steeped in controversy ever since the United States Forces Japan’s (USFJ) initial plans were revealed to go back as far as 1960. Plans for the Henoko base have faced stiff resistance from the local population as 75% of USFJ air-bases are located on Okinawa, occupying 18% of the island. Other issues among the locals include environmental damage to coral reefs and endangered dugong populations in the area. Finally, incidents of crime caused by US military and other workers have soured the relationship between Okinawa and the USFJ, making them reluctant to host more military structures.

While the construction of another air-base may be a long-standing plan of the USFJ for regional defence, the current local sentiment indicates that the people of Okinawa will not accept another military installation in Henoko. This is not only due to the environmental impacts that it will have on flora and fauna but also the ongoing issues that the local population have with military personnel and workers. Given how the people of Okinawa have historically voted and perceived the situation, it is highly likely this referendum will maintain the strong anti-base construction sentiment.

Joshua Robinson