(CNN)Jinshiro Motoyama is not your average political activist.
In a country where politics is dominated by established middle-aged politicians, the 27-year-old Okinawa native is a university student with no party affiliations.
But Motoyama has disrupted the norm. He masterminded this month's Okinawa referendum on the national government's plan to relocate a longstanding but controversial United States air base within Japan's southernmost prefecture.
Okinawa was occupied by the Americans after World War II, and only reverted to Japan in 1972. The lingering US presence remains a divisive issue.
The island represents less than 1% of Japanese territory, but hosts roughly 70% of US bases and half the 47,000 American troops in Japan, according to the last count in 2011.
Last Sunday, 52% of voters in Okinawa -- which has a population of 1.4 million -- turned out to cast their ballots. Just over 70% of them opposed plans to relocate Futenma Air Station from a densely populated area to a remote location with endangered coral reefs.
Instead, they say the base should be moved off the island altogether.
The decision was not legally binding and Tokyo plans to press ahead with the relocation. But for Motoyama, the vote was about much, much more.
"The base issue is tied to all of our other problems but we don't want to just limit the discussion to the US military presence," he said.
"We need to open up a dialogue about Okinawa's future."
A young leader
Motoyama grew up in the shadow of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma base in the city of Ginowan on southern Okinawa.
For the most part, he says, the bases blended into the landscape.
"They'd been there before I was born so I coexisted alongside them," Motoyama said. "But I remember kicking a soccer ball into one by mistake when I was around six years old. I couldn't go in to retrieve it -- and it only hit me why when I grew up."
Motoyama left Okinawa to study in Tokyo when he was 18. There, he became more politicized.
"In Japan, many young people feel like they can't change the political system," he said. "But I think that young people in Okinawa are starting to feel like if people do something then things can change."