U.S. returns small strip of land at Futenma air base

Kyodo, JIJI

The United States on Monday returned a small part of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Japan.

The return of the roughly 4-hectare strip of land from the 481-hectare base is apparently aimed at showing residents the central government is making progress in reducing the U.S. military’s footprint in the prefecture.

“It’s been requested for years. It will improve the life and environment of local residents,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference Monday.

Japan and the U.S. have agreed to return all of the land used by the base, but the prospect remains bleak because many residents oppose the long-delayed plan to move the base from crowded Ginowan to less populated Henoko, a coastal area in Nago. Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga has demanded the base be removed from the prefecture.

“It’s just a portion of the entire land (at Futenma). The return of all of the land and the suspension of operations there are the top priorities,” said a senior official in the Okinawa Prefectural Government. “We won’t allow the Futenma relocation to the Henoko area, which will increase the burden on Okinawa.”

Last week the Okinawa Prefectural Government filed a fresh lawsuit against the central government demanding that construction work for the replacement base be halted.

The attempt to relocate Futenma has been a headache for the U.S. for decades.

On Friday, new U.S. Ambassador to Japan William Hagerty said he is eager to visit Okinawa once he takes up his post in Tokyo around mid-August to “better understand” the issues involving U.S. military bases in the prefecture.

“I indeed intend to go to Okinawa and to visit all of our military installations. I have a great fondness and appreciation and gratitude for the communities that host our military and make our military a fabric of their community life,” Hagerty said at his first news conference after he was confirmed by the Senate on July 13.

The two allies announced in December 2015 that land at the key U.S. base would be returned to ease the prefecture’s base-hosting burden.

An bilateral accord for returning the base land at Futenma was struck in 1996. In 2013, to address the prolonged delay, they agreed to return the land in “fiscal 2022 or later.”

Futenma is not the only issue angering Okinawa residents.

The U.S. Marine Corps has deployed the MV-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor transport aircraft, at four of the six helipads in the village of Higashi in northern Okinawa, fueling safety concerns.

The helipads were built in exchange for the return last year of more than half of Camp Gonsalves, a U.S. training area straddling Higashi and the neighboring village of Kunigami.

Four of the helipads were completed last December after construction started in July 2016. The U.S. military began using them on July 11; the other two came into use earlier.

“The entire community will be facing noise pollution” after all six helipads are in use, said self-employed resident Gentatsu Ashimine, 58.

Ashimine has lived in Takae for more than 10 years, but he said his family moved to Kunigami in April, partly because aircraft noise from the helipads was ruining the health of his child.

Ashimine said he built his house in Takae because he liked the community, but is now frustrated because he had to leave the district.

The U.S. military did not give the Japanese government any warning about using the helipads.

“While we were asking the government for information about when the use of the helipads would begin, their operations were launched suddenly with the start of the Osprey flights,” Kumiko Nakamine, 67, administrative head of the Takae district, said, voicing her dissatisfaction. “There was no prior notice.”

As work to build roads to the helipads continues, residents opposed to the helipads have been staging protests.

Last December, an Osprey ditched off Nago, raising concerns that more accidents involving the U.S. military are on the way.

“The people in Takae are constantly worried about potential Osprey crashes,” Nakamine said.