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Gov't worried Okinawa referendum result may impact base relocation legal battles

Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki, left, hands a document detailing the outcome of a Feb. 24 prefectural referendum to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the latter's office in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on March 1, 2019. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- After some 70 percent of Okinawan voters rejected the relocation of a U.S. Marine base within the prefecture in a local referendum, the central government is concerned that the result could impact potential legal battles over the base move.

The Feb. 24 referendum result has prompted Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki -- a staunch opponent of the planned relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan to the Henoko district of Nago -- to go on the offensive in dialogue with the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over the issue.

"I request that many opportunities be created for me to talk frankly with the prime minister and seek a solution to the issue," Tamaki told Abe in a March 1 meeting at the latter's office in Tokyo.

At the outset of their meeting, Tamaki emphasized the overwhelming majority of referendum voters cast ballots against the ongoing land reclamation work for the new Marine facility at Henoko. The governor then demanded that the central government abandon the plan to relocate Futenma within Okinawa Prefecture.

"I'd like you to squarely face the feelings of prefectural residents and take concrete action to immediately stop the work," Tamaki told the prime minister.

The Okinawa Prefectural Government held the referendum after losing a lawsuit filed by the national government over the prefecture retraction of permission for the land reclamation work. In the September 2016 ruling, the Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court stated that the relocation of the Futenma base to Henoko would contribute to lessening the burden of U.S. bases on the southernmost prefecture.

The court then concluded that, although the project may not comply with public opinion against the construction of a new base off Henoko, it did not run counter to public opinion calling for reductions in the base burden, including that of Futenma. The court also suggested that public sentiment against the base move had not clearly been expressed in the 2014 Okinawa gubernatorial election, won by anti-relocation candidate Takeshi Onaga.

In a bid to gain the upper hand in future legal battles with the central government, the Okinawa government called the local referendum to clarify that Okinawa residents are opposed to the relocation of the base within the prefecture.

In a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan following his meeting with the prime minister, Gov. Tamaki said, "To purely express Okinawa Prefecture residents' opinion, we needed to ask residents about their will in a local referendum in which the (base) issue was the only point of contention."

The prefectural government is considering filing a new lawsuit against the national government in response to the overwhelming majority of residents that voted against the relocation.

In the meantime, the central government is sticking to its position that it must move ahead with relocating the base to Henoko. However, concerns persist in government circles about the impact of the referendum on future lawsuits.

"I'm afraid the judicial branch can't ignore the outcome of the prefectural referendum," said a senior Defense Ministry official.

Abe has expressed willingness to continue dialogue with Okinawa over the issue, saying, "We'd like to continue efforts to convince Okinawa residents." However, Abe did not comply with Tamaki's request for three-party talks among the prefecture, Japan and the United States.

The central government intends to move ahead with the relocation work to make the project a done deal before any legal challenges can make their way through the courts.

(Japanese original by Noriaki Kinoshita and Jun Aoki, Political News Department)

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