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Okinawa plans early referendum on base relocation

Gov. Tamaki hopes to relay 'unequivocal' will of the people to Washington

Gov. Denny Tamaki explains his vision of Okinawa as an economic hub for East Asia. (Photo by Fernando Alves)

NEW YORK -- The new governor of Okinawa pledged Monday to hold a referendum early next year on a controversial plan to relocate a U.S. marine base within the prefecture.

In an interview with Nikkei Asian Review in New York, Denny Tamaki said the nonbinding vote on the plan to move the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station from a congested urban area to the more remote coast of Henoko would be held in "late January or early February."

Tamaki, 59, has vowed to block the construction of runways at the new site and advocates U.S. bases being moved out of the prefecture. But he faces staunch opposition from both Tokyo and Washington, with both central governments determined to move ahead with the relocation plan.

He was elected governor in September in a special vote triggered by the death of his predecessor, Takeshi Onaga. His victory inflamed the long-running dispute over the base move in a defeat for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose ruling party backed his opponent.

In August, Okinawa Prefecture revoked the permit necessary for the reclamation work to build replacement facilities in Henoko. The land ministry in Tokyo, however, reversed Okinawa's decision, resuming the work in October. Any further legal action could lead to a replay of a protracted court battle that played out in 2015 -- again extending the dispute that has dragged on for about two decades.

Japan's military is shackled by the nation's pacifist constitution, and the country relies on the U.S. for security against perceived threats from China and North Korea. Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party has said that delaying the base move would be a risk to Tokyo's alliance with Washington.

While the outcome of the referendum will have no power to block the construction work at the Henoko site, Tamaki pledged to "report the will of the people in unequivocal terms to the Japanese and U.S. leaders."

Tamaki was visiting New York as part of his first overseas trip as governor, and is heading next to Washington where he is scheduled to meet State Department officials. Tamaki said he hoped to persuade U.S. officials to work with both Tokyo and Okinawa to find a solution.

"People are sympathetic to the idea that Okinawa is being forced to bear a disproportionate burden in hosting the U.S. bases," Tamaki said.

Okinawa accounts for just 0.6% of Japan's land area, yet is home to 70% of the U.S. bases in Japan. Residents there are concerned about noise pollution and the risk of accidents involving military aircraft flying overhead -- on Monday, a fighter jet crashed into the Pacific Ocean off the prefecture.

To chart a future not dependent on U.S. bases, the governor said Okinawa hopes to become a "launchpad" for economic growth in East Asia, offering its prime geographical location to host international summits.

"Specifically, we plan to work with the U.N. to bring a women's summit to Okinawa," he said.

U.S. Marine Corps Osprey aircraft are seen at Okinawa's Futenma Air Station, which has been called the world's most dangerous airbase. But a majority of residents oppose building a new, permanent airfield in Okinawa to replace it, the governor said.   © Reuters

Tamaki brushed aside concern that a mixed result in the referendum would undermine his leadership.

"The people spoke when they elected me, and my job is to execute what is expected of me," he said. "We don't have much time left before the door of dialogue is closed."

Tamaki stressed that he is not anti-American and is not calling for all U.S. bases to leave the prefecture. "We just cannot move forward with the Henoko relocation plan, which is opposed by 60% to 70% of prefectural residents," he said.

Only 5.7% of the prefecture's 4.2 trillion yen ($36.8 billion) economy is generated by the bases, with tourism far surpassing that sector at 16%.

Tamaki said Okinawa would seek to bring in investment by highlighting its proximity to other Asian markets such as mainland China and Taiwan, focusing on such sectors as internet technology, logistics and advanced medicine.

"Okinawa has a growing population of younger people that would enable companies secure necessary workers," he said.

Improving infrastructure has become imperative as tourism grows. With cruise ship travel becoming popular among East Asians, expanding port facilities to accommodate large vessels has also become crucial for the prefecture. But Tamaki ruled out inviting comprehensive resorts that include casinos, citing concerns about gambling addiction.

Tamaki is the son of a Japanese mother and U.S. Marine father, who left Okinawa before he was born.

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