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'Neither' option causes stir in Okinawa referendum on US base relocation

Offshore areas of the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, where reclamation work as part of the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma is underway, is seen in this photo taken from a Mainichi Shimbun aircraft on Jan. 28, 2019. (Mainichi/Akihiro Ogomori)

NAHA -- Controversy has been sparked after a "neither" option was added to "yes" and "no" choices in an upcoming Okinawa referendum on the pros and cons of reclamation work underway as part of the relocation of a U.S. base within the southernmost prefecture.

The referendum on the construction of a new base in the coastal Henoko district of Nago -- intended to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the center of the city of Ginowan -- will be carried out by Okinawa Prefecture's 41 municipalities on Feb. 24.

In October 2018, the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly approved an ordinance on a referendum allowing only "yes" and "no" choices in response to a direct petition from local residents.

The Liberal Democratic Party, an opposition party in the prefectural assembly, proposed to modify the ordinance to add "unavoidable" and other choices. However, the governing bloc voted down the proposal on the grounds that such modifications would obscure public opinion.

In response, five municipalities including the city of Okinawa declared that they would not participate in the referendum. Okinawa Mayor Sachio Kuwae criticized the ordinance saying, "It's outrageous to press residents to choose between yes and no."

To make sure all prefectural residents can cast their ballots in the referendum, the prefectural assembly revised the ordinance to add a "neither" option. Following the move, the cities of Miyakojima and Uruma came on board in late January, and the mayors of Ginowan, Okinawa and Ishigaki cities did an about-face on Feb. 1, allowing all prefectural residents to cast their ballots in the referendum.

The outcome of the referendum has no legal power to force the national government to suspend its reclamation work off Henoko. However, the ordinance stipulates that the governor must respect the outcome of the referendum if votes for an option supported by the largest number of voters account for at least one-fourth of the number of all eligible voters. Therefore, close attention is focused on whether the referendum will clarify that Okinawa public opinion opposes the base relocation within the prefecture.

"The more choices there are in a referendum, the more accurately it reflects public opinion. However, it becomes difficult to clarify if voters are in favor of the move or not. Japanese people tend not to clearly show their attitude, so the number of 'neither' votes tends to increase," said Kazuhisa Kawakami, professor of political psychology at International University of Health and Welfare.

Exit polls the Mainichi Shimbun and Ryukyu Broadcasting Corp. jointly conducted during the Okinawa gubernatorial election in September last year show that 48 percent of voters were against the base relocation to Henoko, 19 percent were in favor, while 28 percent answered, "neither." If the percentage of those in favor of the base relocation and the ratio of those who said "neither" are combined, it is almost equal to those against.

However, there is an example of a local government referendum whose outcome forced a controversial plan to be cancelled.

The Kariwa Municipal Government in Niigata Prefecture along the Sea of Japan coast held a referendum in 2001 on the pros and cons of using mixed oxide (MOX) fuel -- a mixture of uranium and plutonium -- at the local Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Station.

Local voters were allowed to choose between three options -- yes, no and "I refrain to answer."

The results show that 53 percent were against the plan and 43 percent were in favor while only 4 percent refrained from answering.

Kariwa's public opinion against the use of MOX fuel at the atomic power station and revelations of the cover-ups of trouble at nuclear plants forced the cancellation of the plan.

Masao Matsumoto, professor at Saitama University's Social Survey Research Center, pointed out that a "neither" option is not suitable for referendums.

"In opinion polls, a 'neither" option is designed to gauge the tendencies of opinions on matters that will happen in the future. Such a choice isn't suitable for referendums that are aimed at allowing local residents to select policies," Matsumoto said.

"It was a step forward that all prefectural residents can cast their ballots, but unless the tendencies of those in agreement or not are clarified, there may be confusion over how to interpret the outcome," he said.

Jinshiro Motoyama, 27, leader of a citizens group that collected signatures from some 90,000 people to call for the referendum, has urged voters to select yes or no rather than neither.

"Even though three choices will be offered, we'd like to have in-depth discussions so that residents can express their clear will. If 'neither' votes account for at least one-fourth of the number of all eligible voters, it's impossible to respect the outcome," he said. "I'd like prefectural residents to select yes or no even if it's difficult."

(Japanese original by Joichi Sato, General Digital News Center; and Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau)

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