Japanese local assembly candidates who oppose the presence of a US military base on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa have won the majority of seats in prefectural elections.
The anti-US base candidates won 27 of the 48 seats in the Sunday elections, up from the 23 seats that they held previously.
The election results are likely to strengthen the drive against plans to expand the US-run Futenma air base, and to intensify the battle between the central government and Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga, who also opposes the US base.
The Japanese government has been seeking to build off-coast runways for Futenma in the town of Henoko, which is also on Okinawa, as part of a longer-term plan to entirely transfer the base to Henoko.
The relocation has to happen based on a 1996 agreement with the US to move the base to a less heavily-populated area on Okinawa.
Locals, however, oppose both the plans for the airstrip construction and the mere presence of the base on their island. They want it totally removed from Okinawa.
Following the announcement of the election results, Onaga described them as a “great victory.” The central government, however, insisted that it will remain committed to the plans for the relocation of the base.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has said the base is crucial to maintaining the alliance between his country and the US.
“There is no change to our stance that the shift to Henoko is the only solution when we think about maintaining the deterrence of the US-Japan alliance and removing the risks of the Futenma airbase,” he said at a press conference.
Public outrage against the base was intensified in May after a former US Marine and a base employee was arrested in connection with the death of a 20-year-old local woman.
The arrest prompted officials to impose a month-long night-time curfew on US forces based on the island, as part of a “period of unity and mourning” over the killing.
More recently, a 21-year-old naval officer from the base was arrested for drunken driving, during which she caused a “serious three-car accident with injuries.”
Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida filed a protest with US ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy about the Sunday’s development, the Japanese Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding the American envoy apologized for the incident.
The island, which was the site of a World War II battle, is home to some 30,000 US military and civilian personnel under a decades-long security partnership.