Despite the existing military base on Okinawa island being scorned by many locals, a majority of voters said "no" to plans to move the facility. A plan to build a new base 50 kilometers away has stalled for many years.
Sunday's referendum on the Japanese island of Okinawa saw a majority of voters reject plans to relocate a controversial US military base on the island, exit polls suggested.
With 42 percent of ballots counted, some 72 percent voted against the move with 19 percent in favor, the Asahi Shimbun newspaper said.
On the proposal to move the US Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma to a new location on the same island, voters were asked whether they supported the relocation, opposed it, or neither.
Public broadcaster NHK said the number of "no" votes needed to substantially exceed the one-quarter threshold had likely been reached. This would pressure the island's governor to respect the outcome of the non-binding poll.
More than 1.15 million Okinawans were eligible to vote in the referendum, called by local civic groups.
The Futenma base has become the focus of fierce opposition by local residents over the past three decades as it is located in a heavily populated part of Okinawa.
Noise, air pollution, and safety concerns have been raised, especially after a Marine Corps transport helicopter crashed onto the campus of Okinawa International University in August 2004, although there were no injuries on the ground.
Calls to relocate the facility had already grown stronger a decade earlier, following the kidnap and rape of a local schoolgirl by three US servicemen.
The US and Japanese governments subsequently agreed to build a new airbase at Nago, a remote coastal site 50 kilometers (30 miles) away.
Many Okinawans think the island bears a disproportionate burden when it comes to hosting US military troops in Japan, and have called for the base to be relocated elsewhere in the country. Okinawa hosts around half of the 54,000 American servicemen and women stationed in Japan.
Numerous protests have been held over the years, urging the government to act.
Okinawa is, however, Japan's poorest prefecture and the base's presence contributes significantly to the local economy.
"There are so many American troops here. Of course, 99 percent of them are good people, but then there is that 1 percent who do evil things. It's hard for us [to decide]," said Tomomichi Shimabukuro, who thought most people would oppose the plan.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government has vowed to press on with the move, which has been stalled for several years. The relocation is also backed by Washington.
A poll for the Asahi Shimbun this week found 80 percent of respondents want the government to respect the result.
The US assumed responsibility for the defense of Japan in the wake of the Asian country's defeat in World War II. Okinawa is conveniently situated close to Taiwan, which Washington has also vowed to defend in the event of an attack by China.
mm/jm (AFP, AP)