NAGO, Japan, Nov 15, 2014 (AFP) - Okinawa's voters will deliver their verdict Sunday on a decision to press ahead with the long-stalled relocation of a US military base, in an election Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe needs to win.
Opinion polls by local media show a slight lead for anti-base candidate Takeshi Onaga for the role of governor, with incumbent Hirokazu Nakaima -- who has the backing of Abe and his party -- a close second.
Nakaima stands accused of betraying the semi-tropical island chain after striking a deal with Tokyo last year to greenlight a plan to move the US Marines' Futenma Air Station from a crowded urban area to a sparsely populated coastal district some 50 kilometres (30 miles) to the north.
In what critics said amounted to a bribe, Abe pledged a huge cash injection to the local economy in return for Nakaima reversing years of opposition to the move, which was first mooted in the 1990s.
"Eliminating the danger of the Futenma base (by relocating it from the urban area) is the starting point," Nakaima said in a campaign bulletin this week.
"It is irresponsible to call for the immediate closure and withdrawal of the base, which is not feasible," he said, referring to calls by anti-US base candidates including Onaga.
Okinawa is home to more than half of the 47,000 US service personnel stationed in Japan, and strategically key to the US-Japan security alliance at a time of simmering tensions in East Asia.
But there is widespread local hostility to the military presence, with complaints over noise, the risk of accidents and a perception that the presence of so many young servicemen is a source of crime.
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 metres from their backyards.
Deadlock on the move has frustrated the Americans and proved a thorn in the side of successive Japanese governments.
Opinion polls give the electoral edge to Onaga, 64, a former mayor of Okinawa's capital Naha City. He is the strongest of three candidates opposing the relocation plan, although all have slightly different stances on it.
The Ryukyu Shimpo and the Okinawa Times regional newspapers, which carried out the polls, note half of voters say the base move is a key issue.
Abe under pressure -
A win for Onaga would be a significant blow to the central government because the governor has the power to veto the landfill work needed for a new base to be built.
That would leave Abe with the unpalatable choice of overruling locally-elected officials -- risking charges of authoritarianism -- or reverting to the cajoling and persuading of recent years, which would not be popular with Washington.
It would also take some of the wind out of Abe's sails just days before he is expected to announce a snap general election.
The dispute taps into a vein of historical resentment: previously an independent kingdom, Okinawa was annexed by Japan in the 19th century and was under US rule for almost three decades after World War II.
On the campaign trail Saturday, Onaga told AFP: "These bases are just a nuisance. If they weren't here, Okinawa would be a lot more developed. Please tell America: the bases are in the way."
At Nago, the intended site for the new air station, grey-haired Hiroshi Hashitomi is one of dozens who have kept vigil for months in the hope of preventing construction work.
For him, as for a significant proportion of the anti-base movement, the relocation of Futenma is a canard; what they really want is for the Americans to leave.
"The US are behaving like a colonial power here. A lot of problems happen because of them, like women getting raped, taxi drivers getting robbed, soldiers getting drunk and intruding into people's homes," he said.
While all are examples of real crimes committed by US servicemen, the view, which is fairly commonly held, is not borne out by official crime statistics.
Fellow protestor Hiroji Yamashiro said he was backing Onaga as someone who would stand up for Okinawans against the Tokyo government.
"If the Japanese government needs the US military so badly, why do they all have to be here?" he said.
"It is because we are still a Japanese colony. Our identity needs to be respected. The future of Okinawa is in our hands, not the central government's," he said. "If we get a governor strong enough to say it, Okinawa will change."