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The Nago Referendum - 21st December 1997

On 21st December, 1997, Nago City held a non-binding referendum on the construction of an offshore heliport envisaged as the replacement for MCAS (Marine Corps Air Station) Futenma. Agreement between the Japanese and American governments was reached in 1996 to return the Futenma site, but on condition that an alternative site be found within Okinawa Prefecture. After various surveys of prospective sites had been undertaken, Nago emerged as the best potential location. An immediate reaction to this announcement was the formation of a multi-faceted anti-heliport group. The heliport, it was argued, would not only have a detrimental effect on the largely unspoilt local environment but it would increase the chances of local people falling victim to military related crimes. Although Nago currently plays host to all of Marine Camp Schwab and the Henoko Ordinance Depot, as well as small portions of both Marine Camp Hansen and the Yaedake Communications Site, relative to the large size of the district and the heavier military base burdens of several others (like Kin, Kadena and Yomitan) it does not have the dubious honour of being a bona fide "base town." It is precisely this condition that the opponents of the heliport hope to protect.

A petition denouncing the construction plans and calling for a referendum was swiftly organised, and the signatures of half of Nago's eligible voters obtained. Nago Mayor, Higa Tetsuya, added his support for a referendum on the grounds that the proposed heliport would have a significant impact on the community. As the anti-heliport group was garnering more and more support, of course, an opposing group, made up principally of local businessmen, began putting forward an alternative argument. They contended that a new heliport would bring with it economic opportunities that would significantly benefit the people of Nago. Given the experiences of other "base towns," this was by no means a mendacious assertion. For this group, the good would significantly outweigh the bad. The central Japanese government in Tokyo, obviously anxious to encourage the views of the heliport proponents over its opponents, made all the right noises at the right times. Consideration of Nago's environment was promised and a healthy economic development and promotion package for Okinawa's northern region was unveiled to coincide with the build-up to the referendum. Thus, the battle lines were drawn.

The Results

Total number of eligible voters in Nago: 38,176

Total number of actual voters on Sunday (including absentee voters): 31,477

Voter turnout: 82.45%

Voting by option:

1) Agree with heliport construction plan - 2,562 (8.13%)

2) Agree with heliport construction because of potential economic benefits and government's promises to protect the environment - 11,705 (37.18%)

3) Opposed to heliport - 16,254 (51.63%)

4) Opposed to heliport because don't expect any economic benefits or commitment to environmental protection - 385 (1.22%)

Spoilt ballots, etc - 571 (1.81%)


A good result for the anti-heliport groups. If the "trick" questions (2 and 4) had not been inserted the victory would likely have been more emphatic. That said, Tokyo certainly managed to get the economic incentive message across fairly well during the build-up as is evidenced by the number choosing option 2. The low figure in option 4 seems to indicate that those opposed were basically driven by principle rather than any economic motivations. In the hours leading up to the count the pro-group seemed to think that it had done enough to secure a victory. The sour faces to be seen at the HQ in its aftermath tends to back up the idea that they genuinely believed they were in with a good chance. Mr Miyagi and his anti-heliport boys probably carried on screaming "banzai" late into the night (I wonder how many of them glad that they don't have to keep wearing those horrible flourescent yellow jackets around any more?).

Disappointed might be the best way to describe the central government's feelings about the results, though the short comments from the party leaders were not particularly illuminating. Tokyo surely knows that the referendum was merely the first step in the heliport process. The battle began in earnest Monday (22nd December), with Higa Tetsuya, the Nago Mayor, and Governor Ota faced with many decisions as to how to respond. The irony, after all of the efforts put into the referendum by the pro- and anti-heliport factions, of course, is that the referendum results may ultimately have little impact on the decision to take or reject the heliport.

Governor Ota would invariably reject the relocation to Nago on principle, but has also the entire prefecture to consider when deciding. This has been the gist of his statements in the post-vote period. Should he believe that Tokyo's commitment to Okinawa's economic development is strong, provided his complicity on the heliport is forthcoming, he may seek to accept the deal for Okinawa's greater good. His alternative is simply to say that the people of Nago have spoken, and that he has no intention of betraying them. These issues will surface during a scheduled meeting between Prime Minister Hashimoto and Governor Ota on Wednesday (24th December). Nago Mayor Higa has his job cut out for him. I would think that he would be morally obliged to accept the majority opinion on the matter, though he is by no means legally obliged. The anti-heliport group, led by the energetic Mr Miyagi, was the first to demand an audience with the Mayor. That meeting has been scheduled for today (23rd December). What seems clear, however, is that Ota and Higa must get together and avoid turning this into a long-running saga. Tokyo might profit from indecision and chaos.

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