Tokyo: Voters headed to the polls on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa on Sunday to choose between two gubernatorial candidates campaigning for the removal of a controversial US Marine base.
The US Futenma air base has been located on Okinawa island since 1945, and residents have long complained it produces aircraft noise and crime.
A 2006 deal between the US and Japan to relocate the base to a less crowded location on Okinawa has stalled over public opposition to the plan. The controversy even toppled a prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, earlier this year.
The two candidates for Okinawan governor have both run on a platform that opposes the relocation plan, and the alliance between Washington and Tokyo will likely be tested no matter the outcome of the vote.
Okinawa, home to about half of the some 50,000 US troops stationed in Japan, is a strategically important island close to Taiwan and the Chinese mainland and not far from the Korean peninsula.
Prime Minister Naoto Kan has said the US military presence in Okinawa, allowed for under a half-century US-Japan alliance, is critical to deter regional security threats.
His argument may be driven home by recent tension on the Korean peninsula, in particular North Korea`s artillery strike on a South Korean island on Tuesday, as well as worries over China`s growing military power.
But any relocation of the base will need the governor`s approval.
The incumbent Hirokazu Nakaima, 71, wants to move Futenma from Okinawa. Nakaima had once accepted the base relocation plan, but he changed his stance, calling for the base to be moved from Okinawa.
His opponent, Yoichi Iha, 58, former mayor of Ginowan city, where Futenma is located, wants the base moved out of Japan entirely.
The base controversy is growing into a major thorn for the US-Japan alliance. Both Kan and Hatoyama are from the Democratic Party, which had promised a foreign policy less beholden to the United States before its election last year. The largely untested party trounced the long-ruling Liberal Democrats, which had smoothly engineered the alliance with the US and rarely questioned what Washington wanted.
The relocation of Futenma is part of a bigger plan to move more than 8,000 US Marines off Okinawa to the US Pacific island of Guam. But this plan assumes a new, still unbuilt base in another part of Okinawa will be completed.