The Japanese government on Thursday celebrated the return by the U.S. military of the largest tract of land on Okinawa in decades, coming at a time when the recent crash landing of a U.S. Marines Osprey aircraft off the island prefecture has rattled the nerves of locals.
Gov. Takeshi Onaga was absent from a celebration ceremony held in the southern island prefecture, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military bases in Japan, in the latest sign of strained ties between the Okinawa and central governments over disputes linked to the U.S. military presence, including the use of the controversial Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.
The return involving around 4,000 hectares of forest, or roughly half of the land used for the Northern Training Area on the main island of Okinawa, is the biggest land transfer since the prefecture reverted to Japanese control in 1972 after being under U.S. occupation from the end of World War II.
During the ceremony held at a coastal resort in Nago, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Defense Ministry Tomomi Inada vowed to continue efforts to reduce Okinawa’s base-hosting burden. Inada reiterated that the Osprey accident was regrettable and said she had requested the United States to take preventive measures.
U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, who also attended the event, hailed the land return ceremony as a “milestone for the Japan-U.S. alliance,” while stating that “safety is always our number one priority.”
Japan and the United States agreed in 1996 on the land reversion in exchange for the construction of six new helipads in the retained portion of the training area.
But residents living close to the helipad sites have strongly opposed the plan and concern grew as it became obvious that Ospreys, which take off and land like helicopters but cruise like planes, will use the helipads for training.
With Thursday’s return, the area of land being used exclusively by the U.S. military in Okinawa has been reduced by about 17 percent, meaning the prefecture now hosts 70.6 percent of all U.S. military facilities in Japan, down from 74 percent, in terms of land area.
But Onaga said in a media interview that the latest development would “not change the situation much” regarding the excessive base-hosting burden imposed on Okinawa, which comprises less than 1 percent of Japan’s total land area.
Onaga, meanwhile, plans to attend a rally in Nago to protest the Dec. 13 accident involving a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey aircraft, which broke apart upon impact in shallow waters off the city.
Although no crew member was killed, the incident has reignited concern among the people of Okinawa over the risks they face in everyday life as they continue to host the bulk of U.S. military facilities in the country.
The Okinawa Prefectural Assembly passed a resolution Thursday expressing its opposition to the resumption of Osprey flights that began 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 also demanded the removal of the controversial aircraft as well as the U.S. Marine Corps from Okinawa.
A total of 24 MV-22s, including the one that crash-landed, have been deployed at the Marines’ Air Station Futenma in a crowded residential area of Ginowan in Okinawa. The incident was the first major accident involving the aircraft since the start of 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.