Defense Minister insists Futenma, bases return ‘not linked’

Japan’s Defense Minister has told Okinawa officials the return of some American military facility sites to Japan are not linked to any movement on Futenma Marine Corps Air Station.

Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera made the remark in a meeting with Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima after the Japanese and U.S. governments reached an agreement last Friday on the schedules of the return of the land currently occupied by six U.S. military facilities in the southern part of Okinawa’s main island, including the Futenma base. The land return program “will surely lead to a further development of Okinawa,” Onodera said, seeking Nakaima’s support for the agreement.

Nakaima said he welcomes the efforts of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and many other people concerned, adding, “We want (the Japanese government) to continue efforts to ensure the return (of the land).” During the meeting, the governor did not refer to the land return schedules included in the bilateral agreement, which also calls for the return of the Futenma base site in the center of Ginowan, to Japan in fiscal 2022 at the earliest on condition that the base will be relocated to the Henoko coastal area in Nago.

He told reporters after the meeting that there will be little progress in the land return plans unless the government listens to residents of the municipalities where a military facility will be transferred to. If the Futenma base site will not be returned for at least nine to 10 more years as specified in the agreement, Nakaima says it effectively means that the base will stay fixed at the current location. Nakaima added that he has not changed his demand that the Futenma base be moved out of Okinawa.

With most Okinawa residents calling for the transfer of the Futenma base outside the southernmost prefecture, the governor is unlikely to approve the central government’s application for the landfill work needed to construct a replacement facility for the base in Nago. Onodera said the government will work to realize the early return of the U.S. military facilities in Okinawa under the agreement wherever possible.

Japanese Ambassador to the United States, Kenichiro Sasae, is describing the significance of the latest Japan-U.S. agreement on the return of some U.S. base sites in Okinawa Prefecture in terms of its implications for Asia. The agreement is a very big step in the sense that it will lead to stronger trust between Japan and the United States, Sasae said at a press conference. He says “It is very important to demonstrate the deepening bilateral alliance in the current tense situation in Asia.”

The remarks indicate his belief that the agreement will help prevent deterioration of the situation in Asia, which has been strained by the tensions between Japan and China over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, as well as by North Korean provocations. Under the agreement, announced last Friday, land occupied by U.S. military facilities in the southern part of Okinawa’s main island will be returned to Japan in stages.