The United States and Japan on Friday announced the upcoming return of two parcels of land from military bases in Okinawa to civilian use. The thin strips, currently part of U.S. bases, are to help widen roads and ease traffic jams.
The news came at a rare joint announcement by U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga at the prime minister’s office in Tokyo.
The total size of the land is a tiny fraction of the massive territory occupied by U.S. bases, which together take up as much as 18.2 percent of Okinawa Island.
The transfer is not imminent, and will be complete by the end of March 2018.
Still, Kennedy and Suga played up its significance, in an apparent effort to ease growing anti-military sentiment among Okinawans, many of whom seek a reduction in the U.S. military presence.
“These returns will have a positive impact on the daily life of the people of Okinawa,” Kennedy told reporters at the prime minister’s office.
The return will help ease traffic congestion and help redevelop areas around the base and National Road 58, she said.
One of the two lots is a 4-hectare strip along the eastern edge of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan; the other is a 3-hectare section on the eastern side of Camp Kinser, between the city of Urasoe and the sea, both in central Okinawa.
Following an 18-month scuffle under the Freedom of Information Act, The Japan Times reported in September that the Pentagon had released records dating from the 1970s to 1990s detailing serious contamination — including mass deaths of sea life, burials of toxic chemicals and the possible exposure of base workers — at Camp Kinser.
The FOIA release is believed to be the first time such comprehensive records regarding U.S. military contamination in Japan have been made public.
The municipal assembly of Ginowan has called for the land to be returned to ease traffic congestion, which is why Tokyo has recently accelerated negotiations with the U.S. over the matter, central government officials in Tokyo said.
The two countries also agreed to start building an elevated road over U.S. Marine Corps Camp Foster in central Okinawa by the end of March 2018.
The elevated road will connect the nearby National Road 58 to a former residential area of Camp Foster, which was returned to local landowners in March and is now awaiting redevelopment.
Kennedy stressed the returns are part of a much larger U.S. base consolidation plan and overall strategic realignment of U.S. forces in the Pacific region.
“The U.S. government remains committed to executing this entire plan at the earliest possible date, and we look forward to working with the government of Japan to make it happen,” she said.
Meanwhile, in a written statement, Tokyo and Washington reaffirmed the same day their commitment to the controversial plan to relocate the Futenma air base to Nago, northern Okinawa.
The central government has long faced criticism in Okinawa for imposing on it the burden of hosting U.S. military bases. The prefecture was under formal U.S. military occupation until 1972.
Currently, almost three-quarters of the bases and facilities exclusively used by the U.S. military in Japan are located in Okinawa, even though it accounts for only 0.6 percent of Japan’s territory.
The Japan-U.S. security treaty obliges Japan to host U.S. military bases, while the U.S. bears the responsibility for defending Japan from attack.
Anti-military sentiment in Okinawa has been particularly strong because memories remain painfully acute of fierce ground battles conducted there in the closing days of World War II.
During and after the war, the U.S. military forcibly seized vast areas of land from local residents, including the site of the Futenma base.
Now the Japanese government pays rent to land owners, but many Okinawans still remember the U.S. seizure of land lots with “bayonets and bulldozers” as a traumatic experience.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has restarted a long-stalled project to relocate the Futenma base, which is located within a residential neighborhood, to Nago, northern Okinawa Prefecture, in an effort to reduce risks to local residents and at the same time strengthen the Japan-U.S. military alliance.
But Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, supported by a vast majority of Okinawans, has pledged to block the relocation within the prefecture, saying it will only strengthen the U.S. military presence in Okinawa. He wants the base kicked out of the prefecture altogether.
Onaga has revoked an earlier permission for coastal landfill. The construction work is prerequisite to building a new site for the base.
In response, the central government has filed a lawsuit against Onaga, further raising political tensions between itself and Okinawa.
The matter has gone to court. Central government officials said they will press ahead with landfill and construction work as the trial continues.