TAIPEI, Taiwan — The US military will return 4,000 hectares (15.4 square miles) of land in Okinawa back to the Japanese government, reducing the amount of land administered by the US military by 17 percent, according to a news release issued by the Public Affairs Office at Yokota Air Base, Japan, on Friday.
The area is a section of the Northern Training Area on Okinawa used for jungle warfare. The conditional land return is part of the 1996 Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO) report. This will be the largest parcel of land returned to the Japanese government since Okinawa's reversion in 1972, said the news release.
The partial return of the Northern Training Area is one portion of other initiatives and agreements with Japan to consolidate US military facilities on Okinawa, with the eventual goal of returning most facilities south of Kadena Air Base. Kadena is home of the 18th Wing and includes two squadrons of F-15C/D fighter aircraft.
"As part of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States of America and Japan, the US is granted the right to certain exclusive-use facilities for the purpose of the defense of Japan and maintenance of peace and security in the Far East," said Maj. Gen. Charles Chiarotti, deputy commander of US Forces Japan.
"Under the treaty, once facilities or areas are no longer necessary to meet those ends, they will be returned to Japanese government. In this case, the construction of several replacement helicopter landing zones to consolidate training within other existing areas will allow the return of almost 4,000 hectares," Chiarotti said.
The return is contingent upon the bilaterally agreed upon relocation of six landing zones and associated access roads to the remaining portion of the Northern Training Area. The landing zones are required so US forces can continue to train in order to meet their requirements under the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security.
"This decreased training area on Okinawa will not deteriorate our commitment or our ability towards working with the government of Japan and our partners in the Japan Self-Defense Force[s] in mutual defense of this country," said Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, commanding general of III Marine Expeditionary Force and Marine Forces Japan. "Our capabilities to operate in the Pacific will remain consistent, even within a smaller space. We will continue to use this area respectfully within operations and safety requirements for Osprey and other aerial platforms. We have plans for many more SACO agreement and other returns to be implemented in coming years, because we are respectful of the feelings of Okinawans that our footprint must be reduced."
People hold up placards as they protest against the presence of US bases, in front of the gate of the US Marine Corps' Camp Schwab in Nago on the southern island of Okinawa, Japan, on June 17, 2016.
Photo Credit: Toru Yamanaka/AFP via Getty Images
The return of US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma has also been a major goal of both the US and Japan for several years, said the news release. Futenma is home of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing and outfitted with MV-22 Ospreys, F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter aircraft, AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopters and AV-8B Harrier jump jets.
The US has moved some its military assets and resources to Guam, while others have been reduced in force level.
Okinawa occupies a strategic piece of real estate. It is only 250 miles from the Senkaku Islands, which Japan administers and China claims as the Diaoyu Islands. It is also 350 miles from Taiwan, which China has threatened repeatedly with invasion.