U.S. base reversion a slow but steady march in Okinawa

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and U.S. President Joe Biden walk to the site of a joint press conference following summit talks on April 16, at the White House in Washington, D.C.

On June 17, 1971, representatives of Japan and the United States signed the Okinawa Reversion Agreement, formally setting into motion the return of Okinawa Prefecture to Japanese sovereignty. This is the first installment of a series from The Yomiuri Shimbun looking back at the half-century legacy since Okinawa’s reversion and assessing the challenges that remain ahead.

During a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House on April 16, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga broached the subject of the U.S. military presence in Okinawa.

“Including Camp Kinser…” the prime minister began, using the English name for the U.S. Marine Corps logistics base located in Urasoe, Okinawa.

Alternately known as the “Makiminato Service Area,” the parcel of land is lined with warehouses, recreational facilities and housing for U.S. military personnel and their families.

The area is also one whose early repatriation Suga has been pushing for since his days as chief cabinet secretary.

Seated together at the same table for their first face-to-face summit, Suga continued: “Let’s aim to accelerate the return of U.S. military bases in Okinawa.”

The direct mention of Camp Kinser was not an off-the-cuff reference, but rather, a subject of careful deliberation; some within Suga’s government had cautioned against pressing for reversion of the base by name.

In the leadup to an earlier transpacific tete-a-tete, pairing Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin for their first meeting on March 16, Suga’s close aides approached the Defense Ministry, to see if Kishi would be open to touching on Camp Kinser himself. But the ministry balked at the idea, saying that the meeting was the first face-to-face one with Austin and thus not appropriate to delve into so specific an issue.

Suga’s aim in singling out Camp Kinser behind closed doors at the top-level meeting was to grease the bureaucratic wheels on both sides of the table, and expedite the paperwork needed to ensure the camp’s return. Publicly, the prime minister kept mum on the issue and during a press conference following the talks did not intimate that Camp Kinser had been raised as a point of discussion.

Camp Kinser occupies a prime swath of real estate along National Route 58, a stone’s throw from Naha, the prefectural capital. Urasoe Mayor Tetsuji Matsumoto envisions someday redeveloping the 268 hectares — equivalent to 57 Tokyo Domes — into an experimental city, replete with cashless payments and self-driving cars.

The Japanese and U.S. governments previously set fiscal 2025 as the target for complete repatriation of the land underneath Camp Kinser, according to the joint Consolidation Plan for Facilities and Areas in Okinawa announced in April 2013.

But a long and arduous road lies ahead. In order to reach the finish line, the nations will have to safely clear a number of prerequisites, including dispersal of Camp Kinser’s facilities elsewhere. Candidates for relocation include the Kadena Ammunition Storage Area, which straddles part of the city of Okinawa proper, as well as to U.S. military bases in Guam. But hemming and hawing over construction plans at both candidate sites has held up concrete action.

Camp Kinser is just one of six such installations covered by the 2013 plan, which outlines the consolidation and reversion of those U.S. military bases and facilities that are currently located in densely populated areas in the central and southern regions of the main Okinawa Island. If the plan were to be fully realized, it would entail the return of roughly 1,048 hectares of land, accounting for about 70% of the six facilities covered by the plan.

Little by little, progress has been made to revert the bases and gradually ease the brunt of a burden that has largely been shouldered by the people of Okinawa. And even a little progress has brought about tangible effects in some areas on the island.

In December 2015, Suga, in his former capacity as chief cabinet secretary, struck an agreement with then U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy on the return of part of Camp Kinser’s land. As a result, a roughly 3.6-hectare slice of the camp abutting the national road was made eligible for immediate return under the consolidation plan, and the handover was at last completed on May 31 this year.

With the return, the national road will soon be broadened from its current six lanes to eight lanes within this fiscal year. Although the expansion will be limited to a mere 2.9-kilometer stretch of roadway, the project is expected to help ease traffic congestion.

As Kishi explained: “The important thing is to achieve reversion of U.S. military bases in a way that can be readily appreciated by people in Okinawa and continue making progress toward lessening the burden.”

Military facilities in Okinawa prefecture