US military to return some Okinawa land to Japan
Japan and the United States on Friday agreed on a plan that will see some land occupied by the US military returned to the islands in a bid to break the deadlock in a long-stalled deal.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US Ambassador John Roos issued a joint statement on the agreement, under which five US military facilities and other areas on Okinawa's main island will return to Japan over the coming years.
Tokyo and Washington also agreed they will return land currently occupied by the controversial Futenma airbase "in fiscal 2022 or later," the joint statement said.
"I am glad to see the long-stalled issue move forward," Prime Minister Abe said in a meeting with the ambassador in front of reporters. "It is extremely significant for our efforts to reduce burdens on Okinawa."
The deal comes after years in which a plan to move the US Marine Corps' Futenma base from a crowded residential area have been stuck in stasis because of vocal opposition from islanders.
Locals want the base moved off Okinawa altogether, arguing that the island bears an unequal burden hosting the lion's share of the 47,000 US service personnel stationed in Japan.
The central government says the US military presence in the strategic island is a key for maintaining security at a time of increasing self-assertiveness from China and an unpredictable North Korea.
Tokyo and Washington originally agreed to move the base in 2006.
Prime Minister Abe, who took office late December, met US President Barack Obama in February and confirmed the two countries would go ahead with the planned relocation of Futenma.