Photo/IllutrationPosters within the Okinawa prefectural government building inform visitors about a referendum on the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the Henoko district of Nago. (Masaru Komiyaji)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

NAHA--Opponents of the relocation of a U.S. military base within Okinawa Prefecture were out in full force on Feb. 14, the official start of the campaign for a referendum on the contentious issue.

The referendum, which will be held on Feb. 24, will ask voters to choose between favoring or opposing the relocation plan or not having an opinion either way.

The vote concerns landfill work at the Henoko district of Nago that would serve as the new home for the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which is now located in a densely populated area of Ginowan.

Several hundred opponents gathered in front of Camp Schwab where the land reclamation work continues off the Henoko coast for eventual construction of a runway for the base.

The demonstrators held signs calling on Okinawa voters to cast ballots opposing the relocation.

“It will be possible to stop the work if the strong will of the Okinawa people is displayed,” Susumu Inamine, the former Nago mayor, told the crowd. “Let us demonstrate our beliefs in a way that will remain in history.”

The parties that backed Denny Tamaki in his successful run for Okinawa governor in September are the main groups pushing for an opposing vote.

“This is an extremely important opportunity for the Okinawa people to directly express their will,” Tamaki told reporters in Naha. “I hope they will go to the polling booth and cast their valuable vote.”

The parties supporting the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, such as the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, are not making a concerted effort to encourage votes in favor of the relocation. Instead, they decided to allow their supporters to make up their own minds.

Land reclamation work at Henoko began on Dec. 14.

Even with protesters gathered there on Feb. 14, dump trucks escorted by police vehicles passed through the gates of Camp Schwab to transport materials to the landfill site.

Police removed protesters who sat in front of the gate.

Others shouted, “Stop the illegal work” and “We will win in the referendum.”

The Okinawa prefectural government bought full-page ads in the local newspapers calling on residents to vote in the referendum. Prefectural government workers also handed out fliers encouraging voters to cast absentee ballots through early voting that will begin Feb. 15.

Although the results of the referendum will not be legally binding, the prefectural ordinance on the referendum has a provision that calls on the governor to respect the option that receives the most votes if the number reaches one-fourth of all eligible voters.

The governor would also have to inform Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump about the option that receives the most votes.

(Kazuyuki Ito and Hiroki Ito contributed to this article.)