US hastens return of several tracts of Okinawa land to Japan

 Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga (Right) shakes hands with US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy.
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga (Right) shakes hands with US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - The United States will speed the return of several pieces of military land on Japan's Okinawa, a move that comes amid tensions over the expansion of a US Marines base there.

US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy and Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced the decision on Friday (Dec 4) at the prime minister's residence in Tokyo.

The plan included the return, several years earlier than planned, of about 4ha of land at the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and 3ha along a major road in the fiscal year starting April 2017.

"These returns will have a positive impact on the daily lives of the people of Okinawa," Kennedy said. "I know how hard the men and women of our armed forces strive to be good neighbours at the same time as they perform their critical mission to uphold our treaty commitments, strengthen the US- Japan alliance and ensure a peaceful and prosperous region."

The Japanese government is locked in a legal dispute with the governor of Okinawa, Takeshi Onaga, who's blocking land reclamation work in a bid to move a US Marines base off the island.

Polls show about 80 per cent of Okinawans support his stance. The standoff has been an embarrassment for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wants to deepen ties with Japan's only formal ally to build a bulwark against China's increasing assertiveness. More than half the 38,000 US personnel stationed in Japan are based in Okinawa, a burden Onaga says should be spread around the country.

Okinawans complain of noise, crime, pollution and accidents associated with the US bases, a historical remnant of Japan's World War II defeat in 1945. Okinawa - a subtropical island 1,600km south of Tokyo - remained under US control until 1972.

The return of the land was first agreed to in a 2006 road map to shift some Okinawa-based Marines to other locations, and moving the urban Futenma facility to the less populated Henoko area on the island's north.

The central government's invalidation of a decision by Onaga to stop landfill work at Henoko to build two runways on reclaimed land has triggered protests.

In a joint statement, the US and Japan reaffirmed the need for the US military's presence in Japan and their commitment to the relocation plan. 

Friday's (Dec 4) announcement also comes before a Jan 24 mayoral election in the city of Ginowan, where the Futenma base is located. The poll is seen as a proxy battle over the base's relocation with the central government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on one side, and Onaga on the other, according to the Yomiuri newspaper.