About half of the 7,824-hectare U.S. Marine Corps Northern Training Area in Okinawa Prefecture, also known as Camp Gonsalves, will be returned to Japan on Dec. 22.
The return will be marked by ceremonies at the prime minister’s office in Tokyo and in the southern prefecture.
A plan for the return of the jungle warfare training area, which straddles the villages of Higashi and Kunigami, was part of the final report in 1996 of the Japan-U.S. Special Action Committee on Okinawa. We appreciate the very fact that the longstanding plan, which has remained pending for two decades, is finally going to be realized.
Questions and concerns abound, however.
During a policy speech in September, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe referred to this issue as a measure for alleviating the burden of U.S. military bases on Okinawa.
“We will pioneer a new future for Okinawa by producing concrete results one by one,” he said.
We are left to wonder, however, if a bright future, like the one Abe talked about, will really be there following the return.
The training area is not being returned in exchange for doing nothing.
The return is contingent on clearing lavish forests to build six new helicopter landing zones, or helipads, that would replace aging ones. With Okinawans having staged protests to the work, it is fresh in our memory that an officer of the Osaka prefectural police, who was on guard, insulted the protesters by calling them “dojin,” a derogatory term that refers to indigenous people.
Suspicions about procedures have only deepened, instead of being resolved.
The central government decided that the work to build the helipads does not fall under an environmental impact assessment by the prefectural government and instead conducted an assessment on its own.
The plan for allowing MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft to use the new helipads remained concealed until 2011, when a plan for deploying Ospreys at U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, also in Okinawa Prefecture, was unveiled.
Operations of the Osprey aircraft are certain to increase residents’ suffering from noise, including from the tilt-rotor planes’ characteristic low-frequency sound, and from wind pressure.
Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga and the mayors of the host villages have called for redoing the environmental assessment, but the central government appears uninterested in doing so.
Moreover, the building work is being rushed, for possible completion by the end of this year, to such an extent that heavy machinery has been used to cut down trees instead of by hand. A hasty decision has also been made to construct a work road that was not part of the initial plan.
Basic premises of the environmental assessment have been violated, but objections by the prefectural government have fallen on deaf ears.
“Strategic Vision 2025,” a document worked out by the U.S. Marine Corps, says: “While … the unusable Northern Training Area will be returned to (the government of Japan), additional available training acreage will be developed where possible, making full use of … finite land acreage.”
In fact, work has begun to build a new training road that would link an estuarine area, which is in the hands of the U.S. military, with one of the new helipads.
Concerns are now spreading in Okinawa that alleviation of the burden could be just a token gesture, and military base functions would only be strengthened, as spelled out in the document, through a more efficient redeployment of facilities.
About 74 percent, in land acreage, of all facilities in Japan that are designated for exclusive use by the U.S. military are situated in Okinawa Prefecture. The upcoming return is only expected to lower that slightly to 71 percent.
Let us ask how long we are going to continue putting this heavy burden on this small prefecture.
It is the responsibility of politicians to perseveringly seek, and put into practice, ways to alleviate the burden that could be really felt by, and will be acceptable to, Okinawans.