EDITORIAL: Abe should work immediately on plan to return U.S. bases in Okinawa

April 08, 2013

Tokyo and Washington thrashed out a plan to return to Japan tracts of land used for U.S. military facilities in Okinawa Prefecture as a step to reduce the southern prefecture’s burden of hosting so many American bases.

The plan, announced on April 5, includes a timetable and procedures for returning six U.S. bases in densely populated southern parts of the prefecture. The bilateral agreement aims to hand over 1,000 hectares of land from fiscal 2013 to 2028.

Okinawa is home to 73.8 percent of U.S. military bases in Japan. The agreement, if implemented, will lower that ratio only slightly to 73.1 percent.

Still, even the small decline in the burden borne by people in Okinawa will not be meaningless. We hope the plan will be implemented steadily.

But the timetable for the return of the bases is not as definite as it should be.

The target date of returning the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, for instance, is stated as “fiscal 2022 or later.” The dates of handing over five other U.S. bases are also qualified by the same “or later.”

On April 6, Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima criticized the indefinite timetable during his meeting with Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, who visited Naha to explain the deal with Washington.

Nakaima said the timetable can only be interpreted to mean that it is unclear when the bases will actually be turned over to Japan. Onodera stressed the deal had not intentionally left the dates unclear, but that is hard to believe.

The reason behind such uncertainty about the deadlines is that most of the land will be returned only when replacement facilities have been built.

Of the 1,000 hectares listed in the plan, 841 hectares will be reverted only after functions of the existing facilities are relocated to other parts of the prefecture, according to the agreement.

On April 6, Onodera explained the plan, for the first time, to the municipal governments where the substitute facilities will be located. Unsurprisingly, most of the mayors said they cannot readily accept the plan.

How will the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proceed with the plan to return the bases? Now that it has set a timetable, albeit vague, the administration can’t say it is just a land-returning plan written on paper. The government should now be committed to making every possible effort to carry it out.

The bilateral agreement says the return of the Futenma airfield, which occupies 481 hectares in the densely populated city of Ginowan, accounting for nearly half of the total land to be reverted, is conditioned, as before, on the relocation of the base to the Henoko district in the city of Nago, also in Okinawa.

Governor Nakaima on April 6 told reporters that the return of the Futenma base “in fiscal 2022 or later” is tantamount to freezing the base at its current location. He reiterated his demand that the airfield be moved out of the prefecture.

The plan to relocate the air base to Henoko in the face of opposition from all municipalities in the prefecture is still unrealistic.

But the Abe administration should not postpone the return of other bases because of the lack of progress on the Futenma relocation plan. The government should move ahead with parts of the plan that can be carried out to return the land as soon as possible, even ahead of schedule.

Last spring, Tokyo and Washington agreed to separate the Futenma relocation issue from the return of other bases.

But U.S. government officials have started making remarks that are inconsistent with this agreement. A Pentagon press secretary, for instance, said that along with the relocation of Marines to Guam and elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region, the relocation of the Futenma air station will enable the return of land south of Kadena Air Base.

The lesson from the bitter experiences of the failure to follow through on the bilateral deal to return the Futenma base, originally made in 1996, is that this kind of approach doesn’t work.

If the lack of progress on relocating the Futenma base continues, resentment among people in Okinawa will grow, possibly raising concerns that it may become difficult for U.S. forces to stay on the island.

With the security situation in East Asia becoming increasingly unstable, this must be a development neither Japan nor the United States wants to see.

--The Asahi Shimbun, April 7

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U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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  • U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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