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Japan's Okinawa Elects Governor Opposed to US Air Base

Former Naha Mayor Takeshi Onaga, right, hugs his daughter as they celebrate his victory in the Okinawa gubernatorial election in Naha, the capital of Japan's southern island of Okinawa, Nov. 16, 2014.

Residents of Japan's Okinawa on Sunday elected a governor opposed to relocating a controversial air base, home to a bulk of the U.S. military forces in the country, local news media reported.

Kyodo news agency and other news media reported that exit poll projections showed former Mayor Takeshi Onaga was certain to defeat incumbent Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima, who was backed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's party.

Delays in relocating the U.S. Marines' Futenma air base in Okinawa have long been an irritant in U.S.-Japan relations. Abe is keen to make progress on the project as he seeks tighter ties with Washington in the face of an assertive China.

Politics in Okinawa, where many residents associate the U.S. military bases with crime, accidents and noise pollution, often operate on different dynamics than elsewhere in Japan. Many want the base removed entirely, rather than simply relocated about 50 kilometers (30 miles) to the north of its current location.

Nakaima, who ran with the backing of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, had approved a U.S.-Japan plan to relocate Futenma to a less populous part of the island.

Critical of Abe's politics

Onaga, a conservative who once supported the base move to coastal northern Okinawa, later changed his mind to say he wanted it out of the prefecture. His platform was also critical of other Abe policies, such as the use of nuclear power.

Onaga's apparent victory is a significant blow to the central government because the governor can veto the landfill work needed for a new base to be built.

In his first comments, the 64-year-old indicated he would do just that. Onaga, quoted by Jiji Press, said he would "act with determination" toward retracting approval for the landfill work, according to the French news agency AFP.

Nakaima's loss is a headache for Abe, but was unlikely to affect his expected decision to postpone an unpopular sales tax hike and call a snap election to try to secure his grip on power while his voter support is still relatively robust.

Okinawa is home to more than half of the 47,000 U.S. service personnel stationed in Japan.

The current base sits in a residential district whose inhabitants bitterly recall a 2004 military helicopter crash in the grounds of a local university, and who resent the sound of roaring engines meters from their backyards.

Some material for this report came from Reuters and AFP.