KADENA, OKINAWA PREF. – Koza Gate Dori is conveniently situated near one of the entrances to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, but a visit to the shopping street, where “for rent” signs are common and numerous stores are shuttered, makes it clear that residents aren’t profiting much from the presence of the United States Air Force.
“We don’t see much activity around here, and many owners are closing their shops,” an elderly woman who runs a small grocery store told The Japan Times last week.
Things were different in the 1970s, when the Vietnam War was raging and the yen was still cheap, but those days are gone, she said.
“Small shops like ours won’t see much difference whether the U.S. forces remain in the area or are relocated,” she said.
As Okinawa and the central government continue to discuss how to reduce the concentration of U.S. bases in the prefecture, a key question overshadows the debate: Can the prefecture stand on its own two feet without base-related revenues?
Statistics show that after the end of World War II, Okinawa relied on U.S. bases for more than 50 percent of its gross income, mostly in the form of wages for locals employed at the installations, rent for the land they were built on, and other general spending by U.S. service members residing in the prefecture.
By the 1980s that level had fallen to single digits.
While the central government provides special expenditures to compensate for the heavy U.S. military presence, Okinawa only relies on the bases for about 4 to 5 percent of its income nowadays.
“The U.S. bases in Okinawa won’t continue to be a main source of income for the prefecture, especially since Okinawa’s economy is expanding and the reliance on base-related income has been declining,” Okinawa International University economics specialist Moritake Tomikawa told The Japan Times.
But questions remain over whether simply removing the U.S. bases would invigorate the local economy. Although Tokyo and Washington agreed in April to have the U.S. Army facilities in south-central Okinawa Island returned sequentially in three stages, development of those areas will take years, and the land — whose owners will lose the income from leasing the facilities — will take time to become profitable again.
Although examples of successful base reversions exist, including Mihama American Village, built in the city of Chatan on the land that used to be U.S. Hamby Air Field, the opening of the shopping area took more than a decade after the property was returned in 1981. And there are no guarantees that all of the land returned will make the prosperous transition to commercial success like American Village.
Another key concern once bases close and the land is returned to Japan will be how to employ all the local residents whose livelihoods depend on the U.S. military. According to Hideo Jinpu, parliamentary secretary of the Defense Ministry, there were 3,882 Japanese working at six U.S. bases south of Kadena as of April.
Jinpu told a Lower House committee in April that the government will either help the people find jobs at other U.S. bases or provide them with assistance in seeking other occupations. How this will be accomplished, however, remains unclear.
Ultimately, according to Okinawa International University’s Tomikawa, the future of the prefecture will require that the military facilities be returned to Japan.
“U.S. bases are not corporations that accumulate capital and contribute to the growth of the local economy,” he said.
While it is true that jobs may be lost and landowners may lose revenue once the bases are gone, the long-term benefits of having base land returned will eventually prove to be far greater.
“Okinawa needs to take a step forward in terms of its economy and try new businesses and projects. Having the land resources taken away is a huge economic loss for the prefecture,” Tomikawa said.