US formally returns large swath of land on Okinawa
By MATTHEW M. BURKE AND CHIYOMI SUMIDA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 22, 2016
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — U.S. and Japanese representatives came together Thursday, despite protests, to return the largest swath of land to the Japanese government since 1972.
Meeting at Nago’s Bankoku Shinryokan Hall, U.S. officials handed back 4,000 of the Northern Training Area’s 7,542 hectares — or nearly 10,000 acres, roughly the size of two Kadena Air Bases. The land is mostly undeveloped jungle. It will now be absorbed and protected by the surrounding Yanbaru National Park.
Though the return officially reduced the American footprint on Okinawa by 20 percent, the ceremony was overshadowed by protesters seeking a smaller American military presence on Okinawa and boycotted by Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who opposes U.S. basing on the island.
The government of Prime Ministr Shinzo Abe “has worked with a determination that it would do everything possible to mitigate the impacts of the military presence on Okinawa, and in a visible way,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said during the ceremony.
Suga also tried to assuage the fears of residents who had opposed six helicopter landing zones built in a consolidated area to facilitate the land return.
“Construction of the helicopter landing zones has caused great trouble and concern to residents in Kunigami and Higashi villages,” he said. “Safety is the major prerequisite. To mitigate aircraft noise and ensure safety, we will work closely with the (U.S.) military so their aircraft avoids flying over residential areas.”
U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy said the handover would reduce the U.S. military footprint on Okinawa while allowing the United States to fulfill its security commitments to Japan. She said it would allow for the untouched jungle to be protected for future generations.
“Japan and the U.S. are the closest of allies,” she said. “Today’s ceremony marks a milestone in (that) alliance.”
Lt. Gen Jerry Martinez, U.S. Forces Japan commander, said the alliance was renewed with the “historic” agreement.
The return was first agreed upon in 1996 during Special Action Committee on Okinawa negotiations. In addition to the land return, that agreement also called for the shuttering of a number of U.S. military installations and the relocation of Marine air operations from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in a densely populated urban area in central Okinawa.
Small but passionate protests began after it was agreed that the air operations would move north to Nago and Camp Schwab, where a runway into the sea was also planned. The protests intensified after incidents involving crimes committed by U.S. servicemembers on the island.
Protesters have also seized on the MV-22 Osprey — which had several high-profile crashes in its development history — as a symbol of their resistance when it arrived on Okinawa in 2012.
Since Onaga won the governor’s office in 2014 on an anti-base platform, he has tried to stop the relocation and reduce the U.S. military presence on the island. He ratcheted up his rhetoric this month following the crash landing of an Osprey into the sea off Nago. This week, Japan’s Supreme Court reaffirmed lower court rulings that essentially said relocation construction could resume. But Okinawa’s governor has vowed to fight on.
Onaga said he boycotted Thursday’s ceremony because the land return did not include the prohibition of Osprey flights, nor did it block the relocation. He joined the protesters outside.
“I decided to join the rally because my presence will help to unite the minds and hearts of people of Okinawa to win withdrawal of the Ospreys from Okinawa,” Onaga told reporters.
Suga said it was extremely deplorable that the governor who has called for reduction of the military presence did not attend the ceremony.”
“The return is not something that should be taken lightly. It is very significant,” he told reporters after the ceremony.
The Dec. 13 Osprey crash weighed on the minds of everyone who attended Thursday’s ceremony.
“I want to assure you, safety is always our Number One priority,” Kennedy said.
Japanese Defense Minster Tomomi Inada said the crash was regrettable and that concerns over the safety of the aircraft are not just confined to Okinawa.
“Under these circumstances, I will continue to call for the military to take thorough measures to prevent such an accident from happening again,” she said.