Japan and the United States on Thursday agreed that Guam will host around three weeks of US military drills involving Okinawa-based F-15 jets in an effort to ease the burden on the Japanese island.
As part of measures to reduce the heavy US military presence on Okinawa, which hosts Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, some of the fighter drills will be transferred to the US Pacific island territory, the Japanese defence ministry said.
Defence Minister Toshimi Kitazawa on Thursday met Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima, who was re-elected as the island chain’s governor last year with a promise to see the base moved off the island.
Under the accord, around 20 out of 50 F-15s will conduct training in Guam for about three weeks during each drill.
Japan and the United States squabbled for much of the past year over the relocation of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, amid hardening opposition among residents of the southern island to the large US military presence.
The base lies in an urban area of Okinawa, where residents have long complained about aircraft noise and the risk of accidents, and is set to be relocated to a coastal, less developed location on the island.
Kitazawa also told the governor that Japan will enter talks with the United States about starting the process to hand back the Gimbaru training area in the island by the end of March 2012.
The two governments already agreed in 1996 about the return of the 60-hectare site where the US military conducts helicopter take-off and landing exercises, as well as amphibious training exercises.
Nakaima told reporters after their talks that Futenma is a “separate issue” from the transfer of exercises to Guam and the return of Gimbaru training area.
The Futenma issue has angered islanders as the ruling center-left Democratic Party of Japan pledged to move the base outside Okinawa when it came to power in 2009 but later backed down as it failed to find a suitable alternative site.
As the DPJ’s first premier, Yukio Hatoyama pledged to scrap a 2006 bilateral pact to relocate the base to coastal Henoko, still on Okinawa, and instead promised to move it off the island, and even outside the country altogether.
But Hatoyama flip-flopped as Washington ramped up pressure for the base to stay put, eventually backtracking on his pledge and stepping down last year having managed to offend both Okinawans and the United States.
Japan and the United States reaffirmed they would move the base to Henoko as originally agreed, despite local opposition and concerns the offshore runways would spoil a fragile marine ecosystem.