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It is important to steadily reduce the burden of hosting extensive U.S. military bases. The central government and the Okinawa prefectural government must hold constructive talks with a view to the future.

Wednesday marked Okinawa Memorial Day, on which the victims of the Battle of Okinawa during the Pacific War are mourned. A memorial ceremony was held in Itoman, Okinawa Prefecture, on the day to commemorate all the war dead of the battle. It is a day to remind ourselves of the tragic history of the battle involving local residents and reaffirm the importance of peace.

June 17 this year marked the 50th anniversary of the Japanese and U.S. governments signing a 1971 agreement on the return of Okinawa to Japan. However, many bases remain in Okinawa Prefecture, and about 70% of the total area of land exclusively used by U.S. military facilities in Japan is concentrated there.

The residents of the prefecture are forced to bear the burden of the danger of accidents and noise pollution, and the bases are a hindrance to their economic activities.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who delivered a video message rather than attending the memorial ceremony in person due to the measures against the novel coronavirus pandemic, said, “We’re determined to produce results one by one in order to reduce the burden of hosting bases.” To bring this determination to fruition, the prime minister’s leadership is essential.

In promoting the consolidation and reduction of U.S. military bases, a power vacuum should not be created in this region. China has been stepping up its high-handed behavior around the Senkaku Islands in the prefecture and the Taiwan Strait. It is vital not to forget to maintain and strengthen deterrence.

The Japanese government should first make all-out efforts to realize a plan to return bases in the central and southern parts of Okinawa Island where the population is concentrated.

Twenty-five years have passed since Japan and the United States agreed on the full return of Futenma Air Station in Ginowan in the prefecture in 1996. It is regrettable that the issue has been influenced by political situations in the prefecture and that the prospect for the return is still not yet in sight.

The current plan to relocate the Futenma base from the city center to the Henoko district of Nago on the northern part of the main island, where the base is expected to have much less of an impact on nearby residents, is the only solution that will lead to the early return of the Futenma base.

However, the prefectural government has not approved the central government’s application for design changes to carry out improvement work for the soft seabed in the Henoko district. If the confrontation between the central and prefectural governments further deepens, it could adversely affect their cooperation on measures to promote the economy in the prefecture. It is important for both sides to facilitate talks more seriously.

So far, efforts have been made to reduce Okinawa’s burden of hosting U.S. bases, such as a shift of the training site for the Osprey transport aircraft belonging to the Futenma base to Yamaguchi Prefecture. Local governments across the country should consider whether they can undertake some functions of the bases, including by offering sites for training.

This month, the Okinawa prefectural government announced a draft of its new economic development plan. The target period is 10 years from the next fiscal year, which will mark the 50th anniversary of Okinawa’s return to Japan in 1972.

The plan calls for strengthening the tourism and manufacturing industries in harmony with nature and establishing an international distribution center, among other measures. The plan is expected to raise the income of prefectural residents, which is the lowest in the country.

The effective use of the base sites after their return to Japan is seen as another challenge. It is vital to pave the way for Okinawa’s independent economic development.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on June 24, 2021.