Japan, U.S. Agree on Return of Some Okinawa Base Lands

The U.S. and Japan agreed on the return of some land used by the American military on Okinawa in a bid to ease local opposition over the planned relocation of a Marine base to another part of the island.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. Ambassador John Roos signed the agreement today in Tokyo, which which also seeks to move the controversial Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a less crowded area by 2022. A 1996 accord to relocate the base has been blocked by local residents who want it moved off of Okinawa, citing noise, pollution and crime.

Under today’s agreement, the U.S. will return four facilities totaling 65 hectares (161 acres) as early as the current Japanese fiscal year ending March 31, 2014, according to a joint statement released today in Tokyo. The site of the Futenma base can be returned as soon as fiscal 2022, provided the replacement facilities are completed.

While the U.S. and Japan last year agreed to move about 9,000 Marines from Okinawa to reduce friction, Abe has stepped up efforts to relocate the base, drawing praise from the U.S. Last month his government applied for a permit to reclaim land off the coast at the proposed Henoko site that must be approved by Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima, who opposes the plan.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement that the agreement would reduce America’s footprint on Okinawa while helping ensure a robust U.S. presence in the region. The pact will ultimately entail the relocation of “a sizeable contingent of U.S. Marine Corps forces” to Guam and Hawaii, Hagel said.

Korea Threat

“Now more than ever it is essential that the United States maintain a geographically distributed and sustainable force throughout Asia that can provide for the protection of Japan and our other allies, and U.S. interests,” he said.

Since taking office in December, Abe has made strengthening ties with the U.S. his top diplomatic priority in response to threats from North Korea and a territorial spat with China. With the role of its own military limited by its pacifist constitution, Japan relies heavily on the 38,000 U.S. troops it hosts for security.

The signing comes less than two weeks ahead of the first visit to Japan by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

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