NAHA (Kyodo) -- A majority of voters in Okinawa rejected a decades-old plan to relocate a U.S. air base within the prefecture in a referendum on Sunday, according to projections by Kyodo News, giving fresh impetus to the local government's attempt to stop the transfer.
The prefectural referendum is viewed as no more than symbolic, however, as the result is not binding on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government, which has already pushed ahead with work to build a replacement facility for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
But the central government may face public backlash if it continues to ignore the Okinawan people, possibly harming the ruling party's prospects in this year's upper house and local assembly elections.
In the referendum, the first of its kind that specifically focuses on the Futenma relocation issue, about 1.15 million Okinawa residents with Japanese citizenship aged 18 or over were eligible to vote.
The voters were presented with three options -- "yes," "no" or "neither" -- in responding to the question of whether they agreed with the work being undertaken in a coastal area of Henoko to build the Futenma replacement facility.
A Kyodo News projection on the basis of exit polls and other information indicated the number of "no" votes was likely to substantially exceed the one-quarter threshold obliging Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki to abide by the outcome.
Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump will be notified of the outcome as stipulated by the referendum ordinance when any of the options is approved by a quarter of eligible voters.
The premier is considering meeting with Tamaki this week if the governor wants to, according to a government source close to Abe.
According to the exit polls with 1,760 voters, 36.9 percent of "no" voters said they voted against the relocation plan as they think Okinawa needs no more bases, while 81.9 percent of the respondents said the central government should respect the outcome of the referendum.
No minimum turnout threshold has been set for the plebiscite, but the figure was closely monitored as an indication of its legitimacy. According to the Okinawa prefectural government, the turnout topped 50 percent.
The idea of holding a referendum in Okinawa was initiated by a civic group in the hope it would coalesce support for the prefectural government's efforts to stop the central government from proceeding with landfill work for the replacement facility.
The plan to move the Futenma base from a crowded residential area of Ginowan to the less populated coastal zone of Henoko in Nago originated in an agreement reached between the Japanese and U.S. governments in 1996, after an outbreak of public anger fueled by the 1995 rape of an Okinawa girl by three American servicemen.
The central government has maintained that the current relocation plan is "the only solution" for removing the dangers posed by the Futenma base without undermining the deterrence provided by the Japan-U.S. security alliance.
Many residents have long hoped for the Futenma base to be moved outside of Okinawa, which continues to host the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan as a legacy of the U.S. military occupation of the prefecture from the end of World War II to 1972.
The island prefecture's location is also seen as important for U.S. security interests in East Asia.
Local people already showed their opposition to the relocation plan in previous gubernatorial elections, including the last one in September in which Tamaki defeated a rival backed by Abe's Liberal Democratic Party. Tamaki campaigned heavily on an anti-base platform like his predecessor who died of cancer.
There were twists and turns in the course of realizing the referendum, indicating the sensitivity of the issue even for Okinawans.
The referendum was initially planned as a yes-no vote. But the prefectural assembly ended up passing a revised ordinance on Jan. 29 to add the choice of "neither" to bring in five cities that had refused to participate, arguing a binary referendum would not truly reflect the "diverse" opinions among residents.
Ginowan was among the five cities and its city assembly had complained that a yes-no referendum would not reflect the concerns of residents living near the Futenma base, who have had to cope with noise and other problems as a result of the long-stalled relocation plan.
Prior to the referendum, some voters expressed concern that a rejection of the plan could lead to the Futenma base remaining in its current location, while others questioned whether Okinawa should sacrifice the marine ecosystem off the Henoko coast -- home to an endangered species of dugong -- for the land reclamation work.
Supporters of the relocation plan ran a low-key campaign in an apparent attempt to keep the turnout down.
Top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga has said that the central government has no intention of giving up on the relocation plan and the referendum outcome will play no role in decision-making.
Okinawa also held a prefectural referendum in 1996 on scaling back U.S. bases and reviewing the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement. Voter turnout stood at about 60 percent and nearly 90 percent voted in favor. No other referendums have ever been conducted at the prefectural level in Japan.