The U.S. forces in Japan said Wednesday the United States and Japan are now prepared for the return of thousands of hectares of U.S. 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 U.S. military training area is a positive development for Okinawa, which hopes to see a reduction in its heavy burden of hosting U.S. bases, but the prefecture is in a far from festive mood following the recent crash landing of U.S. Marines Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft off the coast of Okinawa.
Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who is stepping up his demand to remove all Ospreys in the prefecture, plans to skip a ceremony, to be organized 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 U.S. 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-Defense Forces in mutual defense of this country,” Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, the top commander of the U.S. 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.”
Following the land return, Okinawa’s burden from hosting 74 percent of all U.S. military facilities in Japan will be reduced to about 70 percent in terms of land area.
But the base burden could still be regarded as heavy in the prefecture, which comprises less than 1 percent of Japan’s total land area. Many Okinawans are frustrated with noise, crimes and accidents linked to the U.S. bases, and safety concerns were reignited in the wake of the Dec. 13 crash landing of an MV-22 Osprey aircraft off Nago.
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.
U.S. forces in Japan have denied any problem with the aircraft itself, and the Japanese government apparently rubber-stamped U.S. assertions and allowed Ospreys to fly again.
A total of 24 MV-22s, including the one that crashed landed, belong to U.S. 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.