Amid long-standing political wrangling over construction of a new U.S. base in Okinawa, the mayor of the city of Ginowan in the prefecture has said the municipality will not participate in a prefectural referendum set to be held over reclamation of land in order to build the new military facility, and has sharply criticized Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki over his neutrality on the issue.
Ginowan Mayor Masanori Matsugawa became the second municipal leader to announce that the city would not participate in the referendum, following Mayor Toshihiko Shimoji of the city of Miyakojima. The city of Okinawa has since announced that it too will abstain from the vote.
The municipal assemblies of Ishigaki and Uruma both rejected in December budget amendments that would have allocated funds needed to hold the referendum. After re-submission, both proposals were voted down again, increasing the likelihood that the two municipalities will also choose not to participate.
The nonbinding referendum, to be held on Feb. 24, will seek to confirm whether there is public support for ongoing land reclamation work, which is underway in the Henoko district in the city of Nago.
Advocates for the referendum submitted more than 100,000 signatures of local residents to Tamaki, which obliged him by law to submit a draft ordinance to the prefectural assembly. The assembly voted in favor of the referendum in October.
Speaking during a news conference at the Ginowan municipal office on Dec. 25, Matsugawa said funds would not be allocated to administer the vote. The city hosts U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, from which some operations will be transferred to the new facility at Henoko following its completion.
Matsugawa expressed his concern that if the referendum showed more local residents are opposed to the relocation, it would lead to the continued use of the Futenma base in Ginowan.
“It was a difficult and painful decision,” Matsugawa said, touching on the fact that the referendum was called in response to the request of local residents.
The Ginowan Municipal Assembly voted down a draft budget to fund the referendum at its plenary session on Dec. 20. Matsugawa then submitted it again for reconsideration, but it was voted down a second time.
“The decision of the municipal assembly is very grave,” said Matsugawa, adding that he needs to maintain a trusting relationship with the assembly, which prompted his decision not to participate in the referendum.
“We, the city of Ginowan, have done what we were legally obliged to do,” he said.
Most residents in Ginowan were disappointed with the decision, while some expressed understanding of the mayor’s decision.
“I can’t say either way,” a 65-year-old woman from the Uchidomari district said. “If many oppose the land reclamation, I can’t help but wonder if the transfer of the Futenma base from Ginowan might not go ahead,” she added, revealing her mixed feelings.
In contrast, an 84-year-old man from the district of Aichi, said angrily, “It’s outrageous to have our right to vote snatched away.
“When the election was held, the mayor was vague about whether he agreed with the Henoko plan,” the man pointed out, referring to the mayoral election held in September. “But announcing that he won’t hold the prefectural referendum is the same as supporting the plan.
“Whether he supports the Henoko relocation plan or not, I resent that people are being deprived of their right to clearly express their wishes in a prefectural referendum,” the man added.
An 86-year-old woman living in the Uehara district said a referendum would give local residents an opportunity to express their wishes on the Henoko plan.
“They should proceed with it,” she added.
A young couple visiting the Ginowan city office agreed.
“The problem affects not just Henoko but all of Okinawa, so I think there should be a way residents of the prefecture can indicate their wishes,” said a 28-year-old man from the Oyama district.
“I’d like to hear the varied views of city residents, so I think perhaps they should hold the referendum,” added his 29-year-old wife.
Ginowan is also home for Jinshiro Motoyama, 27, representative for the Association for the “Henoko” Referendum on the Construction of a New U.S. Base in Henoko, which campaigned for the vote.
“As a citizen, to be deprived of the right to vote saddens me deeply and makes me angry,” he said.
But Motoyama also pointed out that municipal leaders have the authority to earmark the budget under the municipality law.
“There are two months until the prefectural referendum,” he stressed. “So through various means, such as speaking directly to the leaders who have decided not to participate, I would like to appeal tenaciously for their understanding in this matter.”
Tamaki and others continue to work to persuade municipalities that have rejected budget proposals for administering the prefectural referendum, with the aim of ensuring it is held in every village, district and city within the prefecture.
But it was the handling of the issue by prefectural authorities that drew the most stinging criticism from Matsugawa during his Dec. 25 news conference, where he suggested such disarray could have been avoided had there been more coordination by the governor and at the prefectural assembly.
At the event, which was crowded with reporters from outlets both within and outside of the prefecture, the Ginowan mayor blasted Tamaki over his appearance in Henoko on Dec. 15, the day after landfill deposits were made at the site. Matsugawa saw this as problematic and inconsistent with the principles of presenting information objectively and with neutrality as advocated under Article 11 of the ordinance for the prefectural referendum.
Reading aloud from a sheet of paper, the mayor began the session with a prepared statement explaining why the municipality would not participate in the referendum.
During the question and answer session, which lasted about 25 minutes, Matsugawa read aloud the full text of Article 11. His voice was raised the most when setting out his criticism against Tamaki.
Matsugawa said that when it came to holding a prefectural referendum over the land reclamation, there are “concerns over whether a governor who was opposed (to Henoko) from the start can really approach things with neutrality or objectivity.”
When asked about the legality of not conducting the referendum, he retorted that it is the governor who is violating the ordinance.
As of Dec. 1, the number of voters listed on the electoral roll in Ginowan was 76,699. In Ishigaki, 38,799 voters were listed.