TOKYO (AP) — A small-town mayoral election Sunday on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa is being closely watched from Washington to Tokyo as a referendum on long-delayed plans to move a U.S. air base to the community of 62,000 people.
Nago city Mayor Susumu Inamine, who opposes the move, faces pro-relocation candidate Bunshin Suematsu in the election.
Inamine vows to block construction by denying permits for the project.
The U.S. and Japan agreed in 1996 to move the Marines Corps Futenma air station to Nago from a more congested part of Okinawa, but many Okinawans want the base off their island completely.
The issue resurfaced late last month when the governor of Okinawa gave the go-ahead for land reclamation to build the new base, whose runways would extend over water from the U.S. military’s existing Camp Schwab. Opponents filed a lawsuit last week seeking to invalidate the governor’s approval.
The Futenma air station would be moved from Ginowan city to sparsely populated Henoko district in Nago, because of concerns about aircraft noise, accidents in civilian areas and base-related crimes such as rape. It’s part of a broader plan to consolidate and reduce the U.S. military’s presence in Okinawa, currently home to about half of the U.S. troops in Japan.
The latest opinion polls by Okinawa media show about 84 percent of Nago residents oppose moving the base to Henoko, but Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which supports the move, is wooing voters with promises of additional development funds for the city.
“The Japanese government wants to impose this base on the remote city of Nago and is determined to do anything that it takes to conquer Nago city,” said Gavan McCormack, emeritus professor at the Australian National University.
The government is planning to seek bids soon for boring surveys to measure the seafloor bedrock and begin designing the base.