Officials confirmed yesterday they would stick with plans to relocate a controversial US military base in Okinawa, despite the election of a politician strongly opposed to the move.
Susumu Inamine was re-elected mayor in weekend polls in Nago on the east coast of Okinawa, to where the base is to be moved.
His victory marked a fresh setback for long-stalled efforts by Tokyo and Washington to relocate the Futenma air station, more than 17 years after the move was first agreed.
Yesterday, chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga described the weekend election results as "very regrettable", but added that Tokyo would work to change Inamine's mind "patiently".
"There will be no change in going ahead" with the move, Suga said.
"Japan is a country ruled by law and we will carry out [the project] calmly based on legal procedures".
Defence minister Itsunori Onodera also dismissed the poll results, saying that "this is a local election, so I don't think this will directly influence the issue".
However, Inamine, who won his second four-year term with backing by leftist groups, vowed yesterday to block the base move.
"That we won't build the base has been my campaign pledge, so I will firmly commit to this cause," he said.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party wooed voters with promises of additional development funds for the city. But an exit poll of 1,204 voters by Kyodo News service found 65 per cent opposed to the base, and 13 per cent in favour. Inamine got 19,839 votes, against pro-base LDP challenger Bunshin Suematsu, who received 15,684.
"Despite all the efforts, the Liberal Democratic Party has lost," said Koichi Nakano, professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo. "I think it reflects how strongly people are opposed to a base relocation."
While he doesn't have the right to shut down the move, the re-elected mayor could oppose the use of roads and other facilities crucial to developing the site.
Last month, more than 17 years after the United States and Japan agreed to move the base from a densely populated urban area, officials in the country's southernmost prefecture finally consented to a land reclamation that would enable facilities to be built on the coast of Nago.
The issue had been deadlocked for years, with some on Okinawa strongly opposed to any new base.
Many are fed up with playing host to a disproportionate share of the US military presence in Japan.
The agreement reached in December was hailed as a breakthrough that could remove a running sore in relations between the two allies.
Okinawa's governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, long a thorn in the central government's side, gave the plan his approval after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised Okinawa financial aid of at least 300 billion yen (HK$22.28 billion) every year until 2021.
Japan and the US agreed on the relocation plan in 1996 but it never went ahead because of opposition from many residents on Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of 47,000 US troops based in Japan.
Additional reporting by Associated Press