Photo/IllutrationIn the right photograph, dirt and sand fill part of the sea off the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, on Dec. 21. The left photograph was taken on Dec. 14, when the government began unloading the dirt and sand. (The Asahi Shimbun)

Dark clouds are gathering over a scheduled local referendum on the ongoing construction of a new U.S. military base in the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture.

Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki plans to hold the vote in February on the facility to replace the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, a crowded city also in the prefecture.

Of the 41 cities, towns and villages in the prefecture, eight municipal assemblies have so far voted against draft budgets containing expenses related to the referendum or have removed the items from their spending plans.

The final decision on whether to hold a referendum in each municipality is left to its mayor.

But if the referendum is not held in certain municipalities, residents in those areas will be denied the opportunity to express their will.

That would be unfair. All voters should be given equal opportunities to take part in the referendum.

In the planned referendum, voters will be asked if they support the land reclamation project in waters off Henoko to build the new U.S. military base.

In a petition campaign for a referendum to express Okinawa’s clear will concerning the issue, a citizens group collected more than 90,000 signatures from around the prefecture. The prefectural assembly in October passed an ordinance to hold the referendum.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner, Komeito, which are in the opposition camp in the prefectural assembly, demanded that two options--“unavoidable” and “can’t decide”--be added to the “yes” or “no” choices over the construction of the base.

But the ruling camp, which puts importance on the spirit of the citizens group’s petition, rejected the demand.

Critics remain opposed to the proposed formula, arguing that the simple choice between “yes” and “no” cannot accurately reflect the diverse opinions among voters in the prefecture.

But that does not justify barring people in certain areas from voting in the referendum.

Elected government chiefs and assemblies are “the two wheels on the axle” of local autonomy.

The system of local referendums is a means to supplement their functions and ensure that the will of residents is reflected directly in important decisions concerning local policy issues.

The fundamental objective of the local referendum system should not be forgotten.

The Henoko base plan is a highly important policy issue for people in Okinawa who have been suffering for years from hosting a lopsided percentage of U.S. military facilities in Japan.

Most of the eight municipalities that have not approved budgets for the referendum, including Ginowan, are led by conservative mayors or home to a large number of conservative assembly members.

Their moves appear driven by a political motive to undercut Tamaki’s effort to promote the referendum and cast doubt on the legitimacy of the vote.

But the fact remains that around 30,000 people from these eight municipalities signed the petition for the referendum.

Responsible local politicians should take this fact seriously. They could support the referendum and then explain their views about the Henoko base to voters for constructive debate.

The prefectural government, for its part, needs to do more to explain the significance of the referendum for the entire prefecture to win support from municipalities.

We cannot help but wonder why residents in Okinawa must be divided into two opposing groups in such a way.

It is obvious that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has caused this bitter division among people in Okinawa by trampling on their will to reject the Henoko base plan and forging ahead with the construction of the base. Their opposition to the plan was expressed repeatedly through a series of elections, including the gubernatorial poll in September.

The administration should be held responsible for widening this rift.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 24