• Kyodo

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The United States plans to return to Japan roughly half of a large U.S. military training area in Okinawa on Dec. 22, a Japanese government source said Thursday.

The return of land within the U.S. military’s Northern Training Area in the villages of Kunigami and Higashi would mark the largest return of land used as a U.S. base there since the 1972 reversion of Okinawa to Japan from U.S. control.

It would reduce the acreage occupied by U.S. military facilities in Okinawa by 17 percent, shrinking the prefecture’s burden from hosting 74 percent of all U.S. military facilities in Japan to 70 percent in terms of land area.

The United States agreed in 1996 to return about 4,000 of the approximately 7,800 hectares occupied by the training area, provided helipads are relocated from the portion of the base to be returned to areas to be retained.

Ahead of the actual land return, the Japanese and U.S. governments are making preparations to hold a ceremony on Dec. 20 to commemorate the return, the source said.

As Japan still has to study the level of pollution in the areas to be returned, the land could actually be returned after a year or a year and a half, according to the source.

The central government hopes to make progress in the long-stalled plan to relocate the operations of a key U.S. base by highlighting the land return as its way of easing the base-hosting burden of Okinawa.

The government and Okinawa remain at odds over the transfer of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma’s operations from a crowded residential area in Ginowan to a less-populated area in Nago, both on OkinawaIsland.

Okinawa, where the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan are concentrated, has been urging the government to build the Futenma replacement base outside the prefecture.

The Defense Ministry began construction work for six helipads in 2007. After two of the six helipads were completed by 2014, work was suspended due to protests.

The work resumed in July, but protests around the construction site have persisted due to noise and other concerns over their use by Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.

While protests related to U.S. bases are not uncommon in Okinawa, the protests near the training area have been particularly intense, with violent confrontations between riot police — hundreds of them dispatched to the prefecture — and protesters.

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