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US Military Returns Land to Japan, but Okinawa Isn’t Celebrating

The US is returning a large swath of military-occupied land to Japan, but with a catch: US gets to build six new helipads.

Even as the US returns large sections of tropical forest on Okinawa island, it is building new helipads at the expense of neighboring forest land. (Photo: Rody Shimazaki)

When US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy and top American military brass join Japanese officials for a much-anticipated land return ceremony on December 22 (Japan time), they will mark the largest handover of property by the United States in a generation. Okinawa, once the independent Ryukyu kingdom, has been part of Japan since the 1870s and after World War II was administered by the US military until 1972 when the islands reverted to Japanese control. But the US never really left and still has roughly half of its 50,000 troops and its greatest concentration of military bases on just 0.6 percent of Japanese territory.

Now, after 20 years of negotiations, the US is returning a large swath of land in Okinawa island’s northern wilderness — eager for a positive story after a year marred by US military sexual violence, murder and embarrassing drunk driving incidents. Any celebratory air, however, will be tempered by clouds of resistance and regret as Okinawans fight to prevent more land and sea from being militarized in exchange for land that was originally theirs.

Okinawa’s Governor Takeshi Onaga has already declined an invitation to attend the ceremony, which Tokyo and Washington see as an opportunity to demonstrate efforts to “reduce the burden” of the large US military presence in Japan’s most remote southern islands.

According to a US Forces Japan spokesman, the US will hand over 9,909 acres (just over 4,000 hectares) of rugged double-canopy sub-tropical jungle, part of the Yanbaru Forest in Okinawa’s sparsely populated north. The result will be a 17 percent reduction of land controlled exclusively by the US military.

Under a 1952 joint agreement between Japan and the US, over 19,000 acres of the Yanbaru Forest were authorized to be used for the US Marine Corps’ Jungle Warfare Training Center.

Negotiations for a partial return of the ecologically important forest, which is home to thousands of rare and endemic plants and animals and vital water resources, date back to the Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO)’s 1996 report which was spurred by outrage following the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by three US servicemen.

But the return of roughly half of what is also called the Northern Training Area is conditional on the US being allowed to build six new replacement helipads/landing zones and access roads near the mountain villages of Higashi and Takae.

The new helipads, which are in addition to 22 existing ones, were hastily carved out of the forest despite ongoing protests and resistance by Okinawans and allies from elsewhere in Japan as well as abroad. In order to complete the helipads by a December deadline, construction was conducted at breakneck speed until late into the night according to local residents. Support protests and public campaigns against the new helipads are ongoing across Japan.

In September Japan designated over 17,000 hectares of the Yanbaru area as its newest national park, which it hopes can gain UNESCO World Natural Heritage status in 2018.

Give and Take … and Take

Helipad construction for use by the US Marine Corps has left deep scars in Okinawa's Yanbaru Forest, one of the most biodiverse in all Japan. (Photo: Rody Shimazaki)Helipad construction for use by the US Marine Corps has left deep scars in Okinawa’s Yanbaru Forest, one of the most biodiverse in all Japan. (Photo: Rody Shimazaki)

Okinawan journalist Tomohiro Yara said the governments of Japan and the US are staging the land return like a “genuine Christmas present” to the people of Okinawa. However, he said, that portrayal is hypocritical: The land was stolen from the Indigenous people of Okinawa by both the US and Japan while the island lay in ruins after World War II.

During the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, between one-quarter and one-third of the island’s population died, leaving survivors with a strong distaste for war and militarism.

Yara points out that even as the US plans to transfer up to 5,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam and reduce its footprint, it continues to plan and build new military facilities in Okinawa.

“The Marines would never be allowed to use new landing pads if it were in the US,” Yara said, “because the new pads [are] not only near human life but also in the middle of a tropical forest full of hundreds of endangered species.”

But the deputy director of public affairs at US Forces Japan, Major John Severns, called the land return a milestone event in US-Japan relations because it nearly doubles the amount of land returned to Japan. Furthermore, Severns said the new landing zones “give us the capability to carry out our required training in a smaller space.” He added that the return of land should have no impact on the ability to provide for the defense of Japan,” and “should not have any impact one way or the other” on regional or US homeland security.

In addition to helipads, the US is building new military facilities on tiny Iejima island near Okinawa’s main island and pushing ahead with a new Marine Corps air base to be built on reclaimed land in Oura Bay off Cape Henoko. US and Japanese officials have said a new base is “the only solution” to demands to close Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the heavily populated south.

Meanwhile, Okinawan protests are going strong, and calls for “no new bases” are increasingly being replaced with “close all bases.”

Crashing on the Coast

The US military introduced two squadrons of hybrid tiltrotor MV-22 Osprey to Okinawa in 2012 but the aircraft is opposed by many due to concerns about noise and safety. An Osprey crashed in northern Okinawa on December 13, 2016. (Photo: Jon Letman)The US military introduced two squadrons of hybrid tiltrotor MV-22 Osprey to Okinawa in 2012 but the aircraft is opposed by many due to concerns about noise and safety. An Osprey crashed in northern Okinawa on December 13, 2016. (Photo: Jon Letman)

The effects of the US presence continue to play out in plain sight. On December 13, even as Tokyo and Washington were preparing for the land return 20 years in the making, a controversial hybrid tiltrotor aircraft, the MV-22 Osprey, was conducting an offshore refueling exercise when its propeller blade was severely damaged by a fuel line, rendering the aircraft damaged to the point that it was forced to crash land in coastal waters near the village of Abu not far from the proposed new air base at Henoko. The Osprey has been the ongoing object of Okinawan protests since it was introduced by the US in 2012.

On the same day as that crash, news of a second incident involving an MV-22 Osprey in which its landing gear failed has reinforced fears of increased Osprey activity in Okinawa.

While neither incident resulted in death, they graphically underscored protesters’ warnings and put the US Marine Corps on the defensive. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the crash “regrettable” and Japan’s Ministry of Defense called for an immediate grounding of the aircraft throughout Japan. However, less than a week later, the Osprey had resumed flying.

US military air crashes are not a new phenomenon in Okinawa, which has suffered a history of aircraft accidents including crashes into an elementary school, a university and elsewhere. Last September a US Marine Corps Harrier fighter jet crashed off the coast of Okinawa. But despite the latest crash, Commander of US Marine Forces Japan Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson called the Osprey a “steady and strong and rugged platform” and a “valuable and important part of the defense of the [US-Japan] alliance.”

In a news conference Nicholson said he understands Okinawan concerns. “I get it,” he said. “We do everything we can to ensure safety of flight, well-trained crews and solid performance by our Osprey.”

Public opinion polls repeatedly document overwhelming opposition to both the Osprey and the expansion of new US military sites, but there are supporters as well, especially among those who stand to gain economically, as well as military enthusiast groups like the Osprey Fan Club.

What’s to Celebrate?

Hideki Yoshikawa, a proponent of marine mammal conservation and the international director of the Save the Dugong Campaign Center, says the return of 4,000 hectares of forest on a small island of Okinawa is a positive development. But he is also angry that the SACO agreement disregards the will of Okinawa’s people by making the land return contingent on destroying biodiverse-rich forest to build helipads that will bring noise and insecurity to area residents.

University of Connecticut history professor Alexis Dudden, who specializes in the modern history of Korea and Japan, says the land return, far from being a boon for Okinawa, is in fact a “bait and switch” that will only engender more anti-American sentiment. Okinawans, Dudden says, see US bases targets, not shields.

“What’s to celebrate?” she asks.

For its part, the US and its officials, from President Obama to members of Congress, have avoided commenting on questions of human rights abuses and environmental degradation. Typical of the muted response to Okinawa’s struggle and the conflict between Okinawa and Tokyo over the US military presence was Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s (she sits on both the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committees), who said: “Of course, the US government is not going to get involved.”

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