Tokyo and Washington plan to stipulate that the site of a contentious U.S. Marine Corps base in Okinawa be returned to Japan’s control within nine years and that the handover of five other facilities and areas leased to the U.S. military in the prefecture be hastened, government sources said.
The two sides want to craft a plan, possibly in the first half of April, to return facilities and land south of U.S. Kadena Air Base in an effort to reduce the concentration of U.S. facilities and troops in Okinawa.
The five sites are Camp Zukeran, the Makiminato Service Area, Camp Kuwae, part of the port of Naha and Kuwae Tank Farm No. 1.
In 2006, Japan and the United States agreed to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from the crowded city of Ginowan to a less populated coastal district of Nago by 2014. But the plan has made little headway amid fierce local opposition to keeping the base inside the prefecture.
In 2011, Tokyo and Washington decided to drop the previous deadline of 2014 and instead committed to completing the relocation “at the earliest possible date.”
On Friday, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told a news conference that “Futenma will be included” in the planned land handover.
A senior ministry official argued the plan would send a critical signal, saying, “It’s important that the government shows its stance to prevent Futenma from remaining (in Ginowan) as a way to gain approval from Okinawa (for the relocation).”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters in Tokyo on Saturday that Japan and the United States “are energetically negotiating” the return of the five facilities and areas “so we can reach agreement on it, including a schedule.”
But he declined to elaborate on whether the two countries will be able to specify a time frame for the return, saying only, “All issues are under negotiation.”
Under a bilateral agreement reached last April, the facilities and areas south of the Kadena base will be returned to Japan to ease the impact of U.S. forces on Okinawa. At the time, this process was delinked from progress on the Futenma base’s stalled relocation.