The U.S. will return 4,000 hectares (9,900 acres) of land on Okinawa to Japan — the largest hand-back since the island reverted to Japanese control in 1972.
The military will return part of the Northern Training Area, reducing the amount of U.S.-administered land in Okinawa by 17 percent, the U.S. Forces Japan said in a statement on Friday. The area has been used by U.S. forces for jungle-warfare training.
“The U.S. 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 Major General Charles Chiarotti, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Japan. “Under the treaty, once facilities or areas are no longer necessary to meet those ends, they will be returned to Japanese government.
“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 move could help weaken opposition to the U.S. presence on the island, especially after recent incidents such as the arrest of a U.S. citizen working at a military base in connection with the death of a Japanese woman. That event led Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to lodge a direct protest with President Barack Obama.
Okinawa — among the fiercest battlegrounds of World War II — remains a crucial part of the U.S. military presence in Asia. It plays host to roughly half the 50,000 U.S. personnel in Japan, the biggest deployment of American forces outside the home front.
The Okinawan community has long complained about the military presence on the island and crimes committed by U.S. servicemen stationed at nearby bases. The central government in Tokyo for almost two decades has wrangled with activists and local authorities over a planned move of a Marine base within the island — an issue that is one of the few areas of tension between Japan and the U.S.
In December, the nations agreed to speed up the return of some smaller tracts of land on the subtropical island.