The central government is accelerating work on alternative military facilities so more than half of a large U.S. military training area in northern Okinawa can be returned, it was learned Friday.
As part of the effort, Tokyo is reaching out to its courtroom foe, the Okinawa Prefectural Government, for cooperation.
The central government is trying to negotiate the return of about 4,000 hectares of the 7,800-hectare Northern Training Area, America’s largest military facility in Okinawa, by the end of the year, Kyodo News reported Thursday.
At a news conference Friday, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani did not deny the report and said Tokyo is hoping to finish building the alternative facilities as soon as possible.
In 1996, the Japanese and U.S. governments agreed on the return of about 4,000 hectares of the Northern Training Area straddling the villages of Kunigami and Higashi at the north end of the Okinawa Island, on condition that six helicopter pads be built within the remaining area to replace those lost in the areas to be returned.
The Northern Training Area is formally called the Jungle Warfare Training Center. It is used by the U.S. Marines for combat training “in a dense jungle environment,” according to the website of the U.S. 3rd Marine Division.
The Japanese government has already built two replacement pads, but construction on the remaining four has been delayed by local protests and activists who are demanding the area be returned unconditionally without building any new helicopter pads.
Some activists have blocked two roads leading to the training area by placing automobiles and other objects in the way.
Nakatani calls the interference “illegal” and said Tokyo has repeatedly asked the Okinawa Prefectural Government, which is suing Tokyo over the Futenma base relocation plan, to remove the obstacles.
An Okinawa Prefectural Government official told The Japan Times on Friday that the central government sent a written request last month requesting it remove the obstacles. He said the prefectural government was asked to reply by April 18.
“We can’t the transport materials necessary for construction work,” Nakatani said. “We’d like to finish building the helicopter pads as soon as possible.”
The central government is pushing for the reversion to ease criticism that Tokyo is forcing Okinawa to shoulder too much of the U.S. base-hosting burden.
The Battle of Okinawa was one of the fiercest ground battles of World War II. Okinawa then remained under U.S. occupation until May 1972, one reason why residents fiercely resent the heavy military presence.
About 18.2 percent of the main island is still occupied by U.S. military facilities, and a majority of Okinawans have called for decades for that to be reduced.
The property in question is part of the U.S. military’s Northern Training Area and accounts for 17 percent of all land used solely by U.S. military facilities in Okinawa, and excluding land jointly used by the Self-Defense Forces.
In terms of acreage, the reversion would reduce Okinawa’s share of all U.S. military facilities in Japan to 70 percent, from 74 percent now, excluding that jointly used with the SDF.
If the reversion succeeds, it may also help soften criticism of Tokyo, which is trying to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan to the Henoko district of Nago, in central Okinawa.
Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, backed by a majority of Okinawans, is opposed to the Henoko plan and is demanding that the Futenma base be moved outside the prefecture.
Onaga has also accused Tokyo of failing to reduce the number of U.S. military bases in the prefecture.