February 5, 2018 / 1:26 AM / 6 months ago

Japan's PM vows to proceed with U.S. base relocation in Okinawa after poll

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe welcomed on Monday the victory of a ruling party-backed candidate in a mayoral election on Okinawa, vowing to press ahead with a controversial plan to move a U.S. Marines air base on the southern island.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gestures as he makes a speech at an opening of a new session of parliament in Tokyo, Japan January 22, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

The candidate, Taketoyo Toguchi, backed by Abe’s ruling coalition, defeated incumbent Susumu Inamine, who opposed moving the U.S. Marines’ Futenma air base to his city of Nago in Okinawa’s north from a more populous part of the island.

The victory by Toguchi - who stressed boosting Okinawa’s economy in his campaign - is expected to give impetus to the long-stalled plan to relocate the base.

The election came just days before U.S. Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to visit Japan this week on a trip expected to focus on security ties in face of North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat.

“I would like to proceed (with the relocation) based on a ruling by the Supreme Court of Japan, while seeking understanding of the public,” Abe told reporters.

He said he wanted to support Okinawa’s development.

Japan’s Supreme Court ruled in 2016 in favor of a government plan to relocate the U.S. military base, dealing a blow to islanders’ efforts to get rid of the base altogether.

Japan’s central government and authorities on Okinawa - reluctant host to the bulk of U.S. military forces in the country - have bickered for years over the plan, first agreed between Tokyo and Washington in 1996.

Many Okinawa residents have long associated the U.S. military presence with crime, pollution and accidents, and resentment was rekindled by a spate of incidents involving U.S. military aircraft. In December, a window fell from a U.S. helicopter onto a school sports field, fanning safety concerns.

The Nago result could bode ill for Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga, another base opponent who is up for re-election later this year.

Reporting by Kaori Kaneko and Linda Sieg; Editing by Paul Tait

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