U.S., Japan set dates for handing back six bases

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The United States will return the site of the Marine Corps’ Futenma air station in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, to Japan as early as fiscal 2022 on condition of building a Futenma replacement facility in Nago.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. Ambassador to Japan John Roos jointly announced the agreement on the planned returns of six U.S. military facilities and areas, including the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station  in densely populated Ginowan City in the southern part of Okinawa’s main island. Of the six, the United States will return part of the Marine Corps’ Makiminato Service Area, usually called Camp Kinser, in Urasoe in fiscal 2013 at the earliest. Local demand is particularly high for an early return of the area.  The others are Camp Zukeran, Camp Lester, Naha Military Port and Kuwae Tank Farm No. 1.

The agreement is “extremely significant” for a reduction in Okinawa’s burdens in hosting U.S. bases, Abe said, underscoring that plans in the agreement will be implemented so that land returns will be realized as early as possible. Roos said the agreement is very important to Japan’s defense because it will allow U.S. military bases in Japan to be maintained in a sustainable fashion.

“We were able to reach an agreement on plans to return facilities and land now used by the U.S. military south of the Kadena Air Base. It is an extremely meaningful agreement  to lessen the burden on Okinawa,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters, adding the accord demonstrates to the world that the mutual trust between Japan and the U.S. is on solid ground amid an “increasingly severe national security environment.”

According to the plan, however, four of the five complexes will be returned only after alternative sites are secured within existing U.S. military facilities in Okinawa or a large number of the U.S. Marines in the prefecture are redeployed overseas.

The new plan divides the five military sites south of Kadena into 13 smaller areas, each with different reversion timetables. In the earliest return, part of the Makiminato Service Area will be handed over to Japan this fiscal year or later. Seven of the sites, including Kuwae Tank Farm No.1, will be closed and their operations re-established elsewhere in Okinawa as early as fiscal 2022. Two areas will be returned in fiscal 2024 or later after marine contingents redeploy overseas.

In the United States, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel praised the agreement as “a new and important milestone.” He said in a prepared statement that the two nations will work to implement the Futenma relocation plan to “avoid the indefinite use” of the land by the U.S. military. In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said a working group of senior government officials will be set up to implement the land return agreement.
Japan and the United States will check progress in the return plans and update them every three years. The outcomes will be made public.

The portion of the agreement on Futenma said the base site “can be returned upon completion of conditions,” such as relocation of the base’s airfield-related facilities and aviation unit to Camp Schwab in Nago, in fiscal 2022 or later. The Japanese government last month filed for Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima’s approval of landfill off the Henoko coastal area in Nago for the construction of the Futenma replacement facility. The agreement envisioned that it will take at least one year to obtain the approval.

Speaking to reporters, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said the Futenma relocation will progress as planned if Nakaima gives the go-ahead. In connection with the Makiminato Service Area, the north access road to the facility will be returned as early as this fiscal year. The bulk of the storage area in the base will be returned to Japan in fiscal 2025 or later. The six facilities and areas were listed in a road map for realigning U.S. bases in Japan, announced in 2006. But work to set detailed plans on the land returns did not progress owing to a delay in the Futenma relocation amid strong local opposition.

At a meeting in February, Abe asked U.S. President Barack Obama to accelerate efforts to craft concrete plans to return to Japan U.S. military-occupied sites south of the Air Force’s Kadena Air Base on the main island of Okinawa. The Japanese Foreign and Defense Ministries opened talks on the matter with their U.S. counterparts after the Abe-Obama summit.  In the talks, Tokyo demanded when those sites will be returned be specified, but Washington was reluctant. The two sides eventually reached the agreement by adding the wording “or later” to the target years.

The Japanese government hopes the land return agreement will help Okinawa leaders accept the relocation plan for the Futenma base, whose site was to be returned to Japan in 5-7 years from 1996 under the original agreement between the two countries.
Nakaima admitted the latest agreement will lead to a reduction in Okinawa’s burden. He added that Japan and the United States should listen carefully to local opinions when they put the plans into practice.

Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine, meanwhile, said things will not progress as planned by the central government. He stressed his opposition to relocate the Futenma base anywhere in Okinawa.

The new plan will be reviewed every three years by Japan and the United States to see if it’s on track.  Officials say changing circumstances could alter the timelines.  The communities involved are demanding the handover process be expedited, citing how redevelopment would improve their economies.

An economics professor at Okinawa International University adjacent to Futenma says returning the bases would vastly enhance the Okinawa economy.  Moritake Tomikawa says the bases are only bringing in ¥108.6 billion each year in rent, but a switch to an economy-driven model would bring Okinawa at least ¥900 billion each year.  He didn’t explain exactly how those revenues would be generated.

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