Japan seeking return of U.S. military land in Okinawa by year-end
NAHA (Kyodo) -- A Cabinet minister in charge of Okinawa base issues told local officials Saturday that the central government is seeking the return of roughly half of a large U.S. military training area in the island prefecture by year-end.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga's remarks over the return of land -- within the U.S. military's Northern Training Area in northern Okinawa -- are viewed as a way for the government to demonstrate to local residents it is taking steps to ease Okinawa's base-hosting burden.
"(Japan) wants to negotiate with the United States to achieve the year-end return of the training area," Suga said during a meeting with the chiefs of the villages of Kunigami and Higashi where the training area is located.
A source familiar with the meeting, which took place in Okinawa's Nago, said it was the first time a high-ranking official from the central government had said the land would be returned "by year-end."
Suga conveyed a similar message to Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga in a meeting in Naha. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Suga said he told Onaga that the central government is "negotiating with the U.S. military for the return of 4,000 hectares."
The United States agreed in 1996 to return to Japan about 4,000 of the approximately 7,800 hectares that make up the training area, provided helipads are relocated from the portion of the base to be returned to an area to be retained.
The return would reduce the acreage of land occupied by U.S. military facilities in Okinawa by 17 percent, and would be the most land returned since the 1972 reversion of Okinawa to Japan from U.S. control.
Onaga, Kunigami Mayor Hisakazu Miyagi and Higashi Mayor Seikyu Iju supported seeking the return by year-end.
"There are various issues but the prefecture's policy is for the early return, so this is welcome," the governor said after meeting Suga, who is on a weekend trip to the southwestern prefecture.
The outlook for construction of the helipads remains uncertain, however, as local residents oppose further construction due to noise and other concerns over their use by Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.
Two of the six helipads have already been completed. Construction work began in 2007, but was later suspended due to protests. The work resumed in July, but protests around the construction site continue.
Suga, in his meeting with the mayors, suggested the remaining helipads will be completed by year-end. Onaga has opposed the restart of construction work.
As the bulk of the U.S. military facilities in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa, the prefectural government has been calling for the central government to reduce the Okinawa people's base-hosting burden, particularly by relocating a controversial U.S. military air base outside of the prefecture.
By highlighting the land return as the central government's way to alleviate the burden, Suga appears to be hoping for progress in the long-stalled plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps' Air Station Futenma from a crowded residential area in Ginowan to a less populated area in Nago.
Suga last visited Okinawa in June. On Saturday he sat down with the governor in earnest for the first time since a court last month ruled in favor of the central government over Onaga's high-profile move to block the relocation of the Futenma base within OKinawa.