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Government dismayed by Okinawa governor’s plan to skip land return event

Kyodo

The central government expressed dismay Tuesday over Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga’s plan to skip a ceremony next week marking the return of a large section of a U.S. military training area to Japanese control.

The Dec. 22 ceremony will be held in conjunction with the biggest return of land from the U.S. military since the 1972 reversion of Okinawa.

Onaga said Monday he will not attend the event partly in deference to locals opposed to the construction of helipads near residential areas in exchange for the land return.

Noting that it took 20 years to achieve the return since it was agreed to by Japan and the United States, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tuesday, “It is extremely disappointing if Okinawa Prefecture, which has been calling for the reduction of the burden it bears for hosting (U.S.) bases, does not welcome the move.”

Onaga said the move is important to reduce the total land occupied by U.S. military facilities, but many locals are unhappy that it comes in exchange for new helipads.

“Not only me but also many people in the prefecture feel something is unreasonable about the land return,” Onaga told reporters, noting that the helipads, being built in the training area the U.S. will still hold, are expected to be used by V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.

Locals are particularly concerned that the facilities will be used by Ospreys, which have had a string of accidents overseas.

Suga told a news conference he intends to attend the ceremony, but that he is not sure whether he will meet with Onaga during the trip to Okinawa.

The Defense Ministry’s Okinawa bureau sent an invitation letter Friday to Onaga for the ceremony to be held in Nago. Along with Suga, U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy is expected to attend.

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada meanwhile said the land return will “lead to a reduction in the burden shouldered by Okinawa.” She added that she hopes Onaga will attend.

The United States agreed in 1996 to return about 4,000 of the approximately 7,800 hectares occupied by the Northern Training Area in the villages of Kunigami and Higashi, provided helipads are relocated to retained areas.

The move will reduce the amount of land occupied by U.S. military facilities in Okinawa by 17 percent, and shrink the proportion in Okinawa to the total amount of land occupied by U.S. military facilities in Japan to 70 percent from 74 percent.