TOKYO – The U.S. and Japan said Friday they are hastening the return of some land the American military holds in Okinawa, seeking to soothe local resentment over the issue on the southern Japanese island.
U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced a plan to return two sites totaling 7 hectares (17 acres) now controlled by U.S. bases to local authorities by the fiscal year that ends in March 2018.
The land amounts to less than 0.7 percent of the total of 1,048 hectares (2,590 acres) that is eventually to be returned under earlier agreements. Some of the land is needed for road works to relieve traffic congestion, and the governments agreed to give local builders earlier access to some areas for surveys and other preliminary work.
Kennedy expressed gratitude from Americans to all communities in Japan that host U.S. military bases, "particularly those on Okinawa."
Despite the modest amount of land involved, Kennedy described the move as part of a long-term U.S. consolidation of forces in the region.
Future plans call for returning land south of the island's Kadena Air Base and of 3,987 hectares (9,852 acres) of undeveloped land in northern Okinawa now used for drills.
"When fully implemented, this plan will dramatically reduce the impact of U.S. presence in Okinawa," Kennedy said.
Suga said the hope was to relieve at least some of the burden on Okinawa, which houses more than half of the 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan.
Okinawa's governor, Takeshi Onaga, is resisting a locally unpopular plan to relocate a U.S. base, Marine Air Station Futenma, from a densely populated area of Okinawa to the island's Henoko Bay.
Many residents want the base moved out of Okinawa altogether. But the agreement announced Friday reaffirms an "unwavering commitment" to the Futenma plan.
Onaga and the central government are engaged in a legal battle over his decision to overturn his predecessor's approval of preparatory landfill work at Henoko — a tactic that has not prevented the government from moving ahead with the construction.
About 74 percent of the space exclusively used by U.S. military installations in Japan is concentrated on Okinawa, which has only 0.6 percent of Japan's land area.
Associated Press writer Elaine Kurtenbach contributed to this report.