International

Okinawans vote for governor, with US base in focus

Residents of Okinawa were voting for a new governor Sunday in an election seen as decisive for the future of the US military presence on the strategic Japanese island.

Election officials bring ballot boxes in Okinawa, where polls suggest a tight contest between two candidates with opposing views on the construction of a new US military base
Election officials bring ballot boxes in Okinawa, where polls suggest a tight contest between two candidates with opposing views on the construction of a new US military base (JIJI PRESS/AFP)

Residents of Okinawa were voting for a new governor Sunday in an election seen as decisive for the future of the US military presence on the strategic Japanese island.

Recent opinion polls suggest a tight contest between two candidates with opposing views on the construction of a new US military base on the subtropical island.

Atsushi Sakima, 54, is backed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has long pressed Okinawa to accept the new air base.

Challenging him is Denny Tamaki, son of a US Marine who previously served as a national opposition lawmaker and has campaigned vigorously against the new base.

The election comes after the death last month of then governor Takeshi Onaga who, with broad local support, had fought against the joint US-Japan project to move the US Marines' Futenma Air Station from an urban area to a sparsely populated area on the island.

Onaga, who died after a battle with cancer, argued that the burden of hosting US bases must be shared equally across Japan.

Okinawa accounts for less than one percent of Japan's total land area, but hosts about 28,000 US troops -- more than half of the approximately 47,000 American military personnel stationed in Japan.

Noise, accidents and crimes by US military and service members have long frustrated local residents, while municipalities in the rest of the nation have refused to share Okinawa's burden.

Onaga had tried to block efforts to reclaim land for the new offshore facility, and he and the national government filed rival lawsuits to try to settle the issue.

The Supreme Court ruled in favour of the government.

But a series of polls show the majority of Okinawan residents remain firmly against the government's base plan.

Many residents voted early due to a powerful typhoon that rocked the island on Saturday, causing minor damage and a handful of light injuries as it charted a course for the Japanese mainland.