United States military green lights biggest land return on Okinawa since 1972

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 December, 2016, 2:23pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 December, 2016, 1:53am

United States forces in Japan said on Wednesday that the US and Japan are now prepared for the return of thousands of hectares of US military-used land on Okinawa to Japanese control, in what would be the biggest such land transfer in more than 40 years.

The return of part of the land of a US military training area is a positive development for Okinawa, which hopes to see a reduction in its heavy burden of hosting US bases, but the prefecture is in a far from festive mood following the recent crash landing of US Marines Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft off the coast of Okinawa.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy attended a ceremony Wednesday in Tokyo to mark the handover of more than 4,000 hectares (about 10,000 acres), about half of the Jungle Warfare Training Center in the north of the island.

The announcement comes a day after Japan’s Supreme Court ruled that the relocation of another US base in Okinawa could go ahead, despite the opposition of the governor and many local residents, who want it moved out of the prefecture.

“We want to continue to strengthen our ties with the US,” Abe said at his official residence. “On the basis of strong trust, while maintaining deterrence, we want to bring about a reduction in the burden on Okinawa.”

Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga, who is stepping up his demand to remove all Ospreys in the prefecture, plans to skip a ceremony, to be organised by the central government in Okinawa on Thursday, to mark the largest land return since the prefecture reverted to Japanese control in 1972 following postwar US occupation.

The land return involves about 4,000 hectares of forest area, or roughly half of the land in the Northern Training Area in the villages of Kunigami and Higashi. The move is based on an agreement reached between Japan and the United States in 1996.

But six helipads, likely to be used by Ospreys, have been built in the retained area in exchange for the land return – a project that has met stiff opposition from residents living nearby.

“This decreased training area on Okinawa will not deteriorate our commitment or our ability towards working with the government of Japan and our partners in the Japan Self-Defence Forces in mutual defence of this country,” Lieutenant General Lawrence Nicholson, the top commander of the US military in Okinawa, said in a press release. He also said there are plans to return more land in coming years, because “we are respectful of the feelings of Okinawans that our footprint must be reduced”.

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Following the land return, Okinawa’s burden from hosting 74 per cent of all US military facilities in Japan will be reduced to about 70 per cent in terms of land area.

But the base burden could still be regarded as heavy in the prefecture, which comprises less than 1 per cent of Japan’s total land area. Many Okinawans are frustrated with noise, crimes and accidents linked to the US bases, and safety concerns were reignited in the wake of the December 13 crash landing of an MV-22 Osprey aircraft off Nago.

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The Okinawa government and locals were also infuriated after their demand that all Ospreys remain grounded fell on deaf ears as flights resumed less than a week after the incident.

US forces in Japan have denied any problem with the aircraft itself, and the Japanese government apparently rubber-stamped US assertions and allowed Ospreys to fly again.

A total of 24 MV-22s, including the one that crashed landed, belong to US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa. The mishap was the first major accident involving the aircraft since the start of its deployment in Japan in 2012.

Apparently to demonstrate his dissatisfaction with the central government’s handling of the Osprey issue, Onaga said Tuesday he will attend a citizens’ rally to protest over the accident on Thursday in Nago, the same day the central government will hold the ceremony for the land return.