As protesters and police continue to clash over the restarting of construction work on helipads in Okinawa Prefecture earlier this month, the U.S. military reiterated Friday that it plans to return some 4,000 hectares (9,900 acres) of land in the prefecture to Japan in an apparent attempt to ease local anger.

The return of part of the Northern Training Area — which would be the United State’s largest handover since the island’s reversion to Japanese control in 1972 — was agreed upon between Tokyo and Washington in 1996.

But since Japan has failed to uphold its part of the deal to build replacement helipads — a precondition for the return — the return has languished for two decades.

The move will “reduce the amount of U.S.-administered land on Okinawa by 17 percent,” U.S. Forces Japan said in a statement. The Northern Training Area is America’s largest military facility on Okinawa.

The U.S. military said the return will go ahead once the construction of several replacement helipads is completed.

In terms of acreage, the reversion will 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 Self-Defense Forces.

Located just 370 km from the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by China, where they are known as the Diaoyu, Okinawa is the U.S. military’s key site in Asia as it faces down an increasingly bellicose Beijing.

The prefecture hosts 30,000 U.S. military personnel living and working on bases that cover nearly one-fifth of the island.

But resentment over the military’s presence took on new life after the murder of 20-year-old Rina Shimabukuro in April, allegedly by U.S. civilian contractor and former marine Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, 32.

The incident has proven to be galvanizing force for the anti-base movement, prompting massive protests in Okinawa as well in other cities outside the prefecture last month.

“We are respectful of the feelings of Okinawans that our footprint must be reduced,” said Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Okinawa, adding that the decreased training area will not diminish U.S. capabilities or its commitment to Japan.

The area to be returned is currently used for jungle warfare training by U.S. forces. The return is contingent upon the bilaterally agreed relocation of six landing zones and access roads to the remaining portion of the Northern Training Area.

In 1996, following the rape of a Japanese schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen the previous year, Washington and Tokyo agreed on the return of the land on condition that six helicopter pads be built within the remaining area to replace those lost in the areas to be returned.

Under the U.S.-Japan defense treaty, “the U.S. is granted the right to certain exclusive-use facilities for the purpose of the defense of Japan and maintenance of peace and security in the Far East,” U.S. Forces Japan Deputy Commander Maj. Gen. Charles Chiarotti said. “Under the treaty, once facilities or areas are no longer necessary to meet those ends, they will be returned to Japanese government.”

The most recent protests started July 22 when hundreds of riot police faced off against protesters after construction on the helipads was restarted. So far, only two of the helipads have been completed.

The move came on the same day that the central government filed a fresh lawsuit against Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga over the long-delayed relocation plan for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

The return of the 4,000 hectares at the Northern Training Area is part of other initiatives and agreements with the government to consolidate U.S. facilities on Okinawa, with the eventual goal of returning most facilities south of Kadena Air Base, according to the U.S. military.

The return of Futenma, it said, has been a major goal of both the U.S. and Japan for several years.

But this plan, too, has stoked controversy.

Onaga — who was elected on an anti-base platform — has opposed the planned relocation of Futenma from the densely populated city of Ginowan to the Henoko district of Nago, further north in the prefecture.

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