December 22, 2016 7:31 am JST

US forces return more Okinawa land, but progress slow

The islands still host the bulk of American troops in Japan

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, left, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

TOKYO -- The U.S. military returned about 4,000 hectares of Okinawan land Thursday in a step toward gaining local understanding for a contentious base relocation plan, even as plans to reduce the prefecture's burden in hosting American troops lag far behind expectations.

The land, part of the Northern Training Area, accounts for about 20% of what U.S. troops occupy in Okinawa and is the biggest plot to be handed back since the islands were returned to Japanese control in 1972. 

"The Abe government believes in doing everything we can to reduce Okinawa's burden, and has made every effort toward this end," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Wednesday at a joint news conference. He also stressed that, during his term, American forces have moved aerial refueling tankers from the U.S. Marines' Futenma air base in Okinawa to the Iwakuni base in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and other officials helped push through Thursday's return, which was long delayed because of a condition that U.S. forces be allowed to build a new helipad on the portion of the Northern Training Area remaining under their control. Protesters tried to block construction vehicles amid strong local opposition to having Ospreys, a vertical-landing transport aircraft, flying to and from the helipad.

The Japanese government went so far as using Self-Defense Forces helicopters to lift and move construction equipment, among other efforts to keep things moving. "Government agencies used to be afraid of creating tensions with the locals, but Abe is focused on delivering tangible results," a top government official said.

The U.S. military presence in Okinawa is strategically important for both Tokyo and Washington. "You can quickly deploy troops from there to areas that can affect Japan's national security, such as the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait," said a Japanese Defense Ministry official. The official believed the bases in Okinawa were necessary for American forces to remain a deterrent for North Korea and China.

But Japan had also worked over the last two decades to reduce Okinawa's burden in hosting American troops. The Special Action Committee on Okinawa was established in 1995 in response to the rape of a local schoolgirl by U.S. servicemen earlier that year. The incident brought anti-base sentiment in Okinawa to a boiling point, and Tokyo and Washington grew concerned that American forces may not be able to operate out of Okinawa in the future.

Some land, included the Gimbaru Training Area, has already been handed back under a 1996 SACO agreement. But many of the plots and facilities cannot be returned without a substitute elsewhere in Okinawa, making progress difficult.

Okinawans are strongly against relocating the bases, even if it means the total area occupied by the U.S. military would decrease. The national government won a legal battle against the prefecture on Tuesday regarding a plan to move the Futenma base within Okinawa to the less-populated coastal area of Henoko. But the two sides are expected to remain at odds.

The Japanese government is holding a ceremony Thursday in Okinawa to celebrate the partial return of the Northern Training Area, to be attended by Suga and Defense Minister Tomomi Inada. Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga will skip the event as a protest against Tokyo's high-handed measures regarding the helipad, as well as the Japanese and U.S. response to an Osprey crash-landing on Dec. 13.

(Nikkei)

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