Steps should be taken to reduce Okinawa’s burden of hosting US bases
THE largest return of land used by the US military since Okinawa Prefecture’s reversion has been realised under an agreement reached 20 years ago. This occasion should be used as an opportunity to accelerate the reduction of the prefecture’s burden of hosting US bases.
About 4,000 hectares of the 7,500-hectare Northern Training Area, the largest US military facility in the prefecture, have been returned to Japan.
The return was made under a Japan-US Special Action Committee (SACO) agreement in December 1996. The total land area occupied by US military facilities in the prefecture fell by a significant 18 per cent.
The returned forestland is expected to be transferred to the adjacent Yanbaru National Park. The government should dispose of unexploded bombs, pollutants and other items and realise the early return of land to the owners and those who have rights to use the land.
The villages of Kunigami and Higashi have great expectations for the local development of the returned land. At a ceremony attended by the village mayors, local residents and US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy to mark the return, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga emphasised, “[The government] will extend necessary assistance and steadily carry out financial measures.”
It is important for the government to come up with an effective plan to use the land, including utilisation of forests as tourism resources, after consulting with local authorities. This will help the people concerned understand the significance of the move.
It was puzzling why Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga skipped the ceremony in favour of attending a rally organised by those opposing the return. His reason for doing this, he said, was because six helipads that had been relocated on the remaining area of the Northern Training Area will also be used by Osprey transport aircraft.
In October, Onaga said he welcomed the return, but later retracted this comment because of opposition from the Japanese Communist Party and others who support the governor.
Onaga has repeatedly criticised excessive concentration of US military bases in Okinawa based on the land area occupied by US military facilities. Does it not therefore constitute a double standard when he fails to support the partial return of the Northern Training Area?
The construction of the helipads took nearly 10 years because opponents staged illegal activities to block the work. Activists from outside local areas were conspicuous in their activities, inducing complaints from local residents.
It was regrettable that the crash-landing of an Osprey came at a time when the land was being returned.
To dispel the concern of residents, the US military should comply with Japan-US agreements on flight times and routes to ensure safety. The government must do its utmost to deal with noise and other matters.
Return of other US military facilities based on the SACO agreement should be carried out steadily.
Of immediate concern is the relocation of the US military’s Naha Port Facility in the city of Naha. The city of Urasoe has announced it will accept the facility. At a prefectural assembly session, Onaga also expressed his intention to approve the relocation to Urasoe.
The facility is close to a residential area, and economic effects are expected. Although there are some people who oppose the relocation within the prefecture, the central government, the prefectural government, the two city governments and other parties concerned will be pressed to make a determined and united effort to carry out the relocation without being swayed.
To reduce the burden of hosting US bases, the best way is to take realistic measures one step at a time, while also ensuring continuation of the US military deterrence.—The Japan News