Okinawa's assembly on Friday voted to hold a non-binding referendum on a deeply unpopular plan to relocate a U.S. military base, in the latest twist to a long-running saga.
The decision, by local politicians, comes a month after residents elected a new governor who opposes plans to move the U.S. Marines' Futenma Air Station from an urban area to a sparsely populated part of the island.
While the referendum has no legal standing, a vote against the move is likely to pile fresh pressure on the central government, which backs the move as the best way to deal with anger in Okinawa about the base.
Okinawa accounts for less than one percent of Japan's total land area, but hosts more than half of the approximately 47,000 American military personnel stationed in Japan.
Noise, accidents and crimes committed by military personnel and civilian base employees have long irritated local residents, as has the perceived refusal of other parts of the country to share Okinawa's burden.
The plan backed by the government would move the base from its current densely populated location to a remote area, partly created by land reclamation.
Opponents do not want the base to remain where it is, but have nevertheless campaigned against the move because they believe it would entrench the U.S. presence on the islands.
They say it should be put elsewhere in Japan, or even shuttered completely.
The construction of the new base "means pursuing national security at the expense of residents' rights to regional autonomy," assembly member Ichiro Miyagi said Friday.
Construction work at the new site has been suspended since August, after the Okinawa government retracted its approval for land reclamation.
New Gov Denny Tamaki, who has vowed to continue fighting the new airbase, will set a date for the referendum, with local media saying it would likely be held before next spring.
Okinawa was the site of a major World War II battle that was followed by a 27-year U.S. occupation of the island.
The archipelago's location means it is of huge strategic importance for U.S. forward positioning in Asia.
© 2018 AFP