TOKYO — Japan and the United States on Friday agreed on a plan that will see some land occupied by the U.S. military returned to the islands in a bid to break the deadlock in a long-stalled deal.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. Ambassador John Roos issued a joint statement on the agreement, under which five U.S. military facilities and other areas on Okinawa’s main island will return to Japan over the coming years. Tokyo and Washington also agreed they will return land currently occupied by the controversial Futenma airbase “in fiscal 2022 or later,” the joint statement said.
“I am glad to see the long-stalled issue move forward,” Abe said in a meeting with the ambassador in front of reporters. “It is extremely significant for our efforts to reduce burdens on Okinawa.”
The deal comes after years in which a plan to move the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma base from a crowded residential area has been stuck in stasis because of vocal opposition from islanders. Locals want the base moved off Okinawa altogether, arguing that the island bears an unequal burden hosting the lion’s share of the 47,000 U.S. service personnel stationed in Japan.
The central government says the U.S. military presence in the strategic island is a key for maintaining security at a time of increasing self-assertiveness from China and an unpredictable North Korea.
Tokyo and Washington originally agreed to move the base in 2006. Abe, who took office late December, met U.S. President Barack Obama in February and confirmed the two countries would go ahead with the planned relocation of Futenma.