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U.S. returns largest tract of Okinawa land to Japan in 44 years

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, center, U.S. Forces Japan commander Lieutenant General Jerry P. Martinez, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, attend a joint announcement of the return of U.S. military land on the island of Okinawa, at the Abe's official resident in Tokyo Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016. The U.S. and Japan announced this month that Washington will give back to the Japanese government nearly 10,000 acres of land on Okinawa that U.S. Marines use for jungle warfare training. (TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA / AFP)
U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, center, U.S. Forces Japan commander Lieutenant General Jerry P. Martinez, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, attend a joint announcement of the return of U.S. military land on the island of Okinawa, at the Abe's official resident in Tokyo Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016. The U.S. and Japan announced this month that Washington will give back to the Japanese government nearly 10,000 acres of land on Okinawa that U.S. Marines use for jungle warfare training. (TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA / AFP)
By Isabel Reynolds and Emi Nobuhiro Bloomberg

TOKYO – The U.S. military announced the return to the Japanese government of the largest tract of land in more than 40 years, reducing American-administered areas on the southern island of Okinawa by 17 percent.

Japan has made “sufficient progress” in the construction of helipads and roads in the area that were a condition of the return, U.S. Forces Japan said in a statement. Staging sit-down protests, local people had delayed the construction of the new facilities in an area that is home to endangered plants and animals.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy attended a ceremony Wednesday in Tokyo to mark the handover of more than 4,000 hectares (about 10,000 acres), about half of the Jungle Warfare Training Center in the north of the island.

The announcement comes a day after Japan’s Supreme Court ruled that the relocation of another U.S. base in Okinawa could go ahead, despite the opposition of the governor and many local residents, who want it moved out of the prefecture.

“We want to continue to strengthen our ties with the U.S.,” Abe said at his official residence. “On the basis of strong trust, while maintaining deterrence, we want to bring about a reduction in the burden on Okinawa.”

The U.S. retained control of Okinawa after its World War II victory, returning the islands to Japan only in 1972.

Many local people resent the concentration of U.S. troops and military facilities on the subtropical island, complaining of noise, pollution and crime associated with the bases. Abe’s Okinawa minister lost her seat in a July election following the arrest of a U.S. base worker over the killing of a young local woman.

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