NAGO, OKINAWA PREF. - The government held a ceremony on Thursday to mark the U.S. military’s return of the largest tract of land in Okinawa in decades, despite last week’s ditching of a U.S. MV-22 Osprey off the coast that rattled residents’ nerves.
Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga was absent from the event in the latest sign of strained ties between the local and central governments over disputes linked to U.S. base issues, including the use of the controversial Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.
The return involved some 4,000 hectares of forest area, or roughly half the land used as the Northern Training Area on the main island, Okinawa. It was the biggest land transfer since the prefecture reverted to Japanese control in 1972 after being under U.S. occupation since the end of World War II.
Twenty years have passed since Japan and the United States agreed on the land reversion in exchange for allowing six new helipads to be built in the retained portion of the training area.
But residents close to the helipad sites strongly oppose the plan. These concerns have only grown as it became clear that Ospreys, which take off and land like helicopters but cruise like planes, will use the helipads for training.
As a result of Thursday’s land return, the amount of land used exclusively by the U.S. military in Okinawa was reduced by about 17 percent. This means the prefecture now hosts 70.6 percent of all U.S. military facilities in Japan, down from 74 percent, in terms of area.
But Onaga said in a media interview that the development would “not change the situation much” on Okinawa, which comprises less than 1 percent of Japan’s total land area.
The ceremony at a seaside resort in Nago was attended by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy. The mayors of the two villages that the Northern Training Area straddles also took part.
Onaga, meanwhile, plans to attend a citizens’ rally to be held in the same city to protest the Dec. 13 accident involving the MV-22 Osprey, which broke apart upon impact in shallow waters off Nago.
Although no one was killed, the incident reignited concerns among the residents about the risks they face in daily life as they continue hosting U.S. military facilities.
The Okinawa Prefectural Assembly passed a resolution Thursday to oppose the resumption of Osprey flights less than a week after the accident even though safety concerns remain strong.
“One wrong move could have led to a disaster involving residents,” said the resolution, which demanded the removal of both the controversial aircraft and the U.S. Marine Corps from Okinawa.
A total of 24 MV-22s, including the one that ditched, are deployed at the Futenma air base in a crowded Ginowan. The mishap was the first major accident involving the aircraft since their deployment in Japan in 2012.
The Japanese and U.S. governments have pursued the relocation of the Futenma base to the less populated Henoko coastal area of Nago, saying that the plan is “the only solution” to address noise problems and accident risks posed by the base without undermining the perceived deterrence provided by the Japan-U.S. alliance.
But Onaga and many other Okinawans want the base to be relocated outside the prefecture. The disagreement between the central and prefectural governments developed into a legal battle, and on Tuesday the Supreme Court ruled against the governor’s attempt to block construction work in the coastal area.
The wrangling is likely to continue, however, with Onaga seeking to resort to other options to hamper the relocation work.