By DoD News
By Jim Garamone
The return of land on Okinawa’s Northern Training Area will reduce the footprint of US forces on the Japanese island by 20 percent, officials in Japan said Wednesday.
US forces returned title to 10,000 acres of the training area during a ceremony hosted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his office in Tokyo. US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy and Air Force Lt. Gen. Jerry Martinez, the commander of U.S. Forces Japan, attended the ceremony. A second ceremony will take place on Okinawa tomorrow.
During the ceremony, Kennedy said the transfer marks a milestone in the US-Japan alliance. “This return will reduce our footprint in Okinawa by about 20 percent, and it is an important step in the Okinawa consolidation plan, which will eventually result in the transfer of 60 acres of land south of Kadena Air Base,” she said.
The transfer demonstrates the U.S. commitment to reducing the impact on the citizens of Japan who live on Okinawa while still maintaining commitments to the defense of Japan, said the ambassador added.
“Most importantly, on behalf of the United States government and the American people, I would like to express our deep gratitude to all the communities in Japan – especially those in Okinawa – that host United States bases,” Kennedy said. “Our service men and women are honored to live in these communities as they undertake their mission for the defense of Japan and the security of the Asia-Pacific region. Japan and the United States are the closest of allies, and our global partnership is a force for peace and stability.”
During his visit to Japan Dec. 7, Defense Secretary Ash Carter emphasized the importance of the land return.
“We’re also realigning our joint force posture in Japan, relocating Marines to Guam and reducing our footprint on Okinawa while maintaining the personnel and capabilities needed to keep Japan and the region secure,” he said during a joint news conference with Defense Minister Tomomi Inada. “We appreciate the government of Japan’s continued commitment to this project.”
Largest Land Return
Carter said the land return is the largest since 1972, when the United States returned sovereignty over the island to Japan. U.S. forces captured the island from Japan in April 1945 in a costly battle.
“Regarding the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, we still have issues remaining that need to be addressed,” Inada said, noting that she and Carter reaffirmed in their discussions that the Futenma Replacement Facility at Henoko Bay is the only solution that permits the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
“I requested Secretary Carter to continue cooperation on initiatives to mitigate impacts on Okinawa and we both agree to continue cooperation,” she added.
The transfer comes following Japanese progress in constructing helipads and access roads in a portion of the Northern Training Area, U.S. Forces Japan officials said in a news release.
The Northern Training Area, also known as Camp Gonsalves or the Jungle Warfare Training Center, is a 19,300-acre U.S. installation in northern Okinawa. Aside from a few support buildings, roads and ranges, it consists almost entirely of untouched rainforest. It is the largest U.S. installation in Japan.
The area is home to some endangered species, and it abuts the Yanbaru Wildlife Center.
Training will still be conducted on the remainder of the area, officials said.
“This decreased training area on Okinawa will not deteriorate our commitment or our ability towards working with the government of Japan and our partners in the Japan Self Defense Force in mutual defense of this country,” Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, commanding general of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force and U.S. Marine Corps Forces Japan, said in a statement posted on Facebook today.
“Our capabilities to operate in the Pacific will remain consistent, even within a smaller space,” he said. “We have plans for many more [Special Action Committee on Okinawa] agreements and other returns to be implemented in coming years, because we are respectful of the feelings of Okinawans that our footprint must be reduced.”
The partial return of the Northern Training Area is one step in consolidating U.S. facilities on the island. The eventual goal is to return most of the American facilities south of Kadena Air Base. The return of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, in particular, has been a major goal of both the U.S. and Japan for several years, officials said.