Okinawa marks 40th anniversary

Kyodo

Okinawa Prefecture marked the 40th anniversary of its reversion to Japanese sovereignty from U.S. control Tuesday amid a remaining heavy U.S. military presence and economic difficulties, with no end in sight to the political deadlock over the planned relocation of the Futenma military base.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima and U.S. Ambassador John Roos attended a ceremony in Ginowan to commemorate the prefecture’s return to Japan. The event was attended by an estimated 1,200 people, including Cabinet ministers, the heads of the upper and lower chambers of the Diet as well as the Supreme Court and youth in Okinawa.

During the event cohosted by the central government and Okinawa Prefecture, Noda pledged that Tokyo will not allow U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to remain in its present location in Ginowan and will strive to ease the base-hosting burden on Okinawa.

“I’m fully aware that the convergence of U.S. military bases has become a heavy burden on people in Okinawa. I here pledge again to alleviate that strain at an early date in specific and tangible ways,” Noda said, referring to such efforts as “one of the most important challenges for my Cabinet.”

He also said the Futenma airfield “should never stay fixed at the present site.”

On the economic front, Noda lauded the island prefecture for promoting tourism, logistic services as well as information and communications technologies, saying Okinawa’s efforts to boost such industries “go ahead of” the central government’s policies to revive local economies across Japan through promotion of those sectors.

“We are living in a historical transition period in which the gravity of the world is shifting toward the Asia-Pacific region. That means Okinawa has a potential for new development as a gateway to the region,” Noda said.

Nakaima said in his address the prefecture with a population of 1.4 million has “developed greatly compared with 40 years ago” and that residents “now have strong pride and confidence in their home.”

He stated appreciation for the central government’s past efforts to alleviate the burden on Okinawans but expressed their “strong desire” that the Futenma base, which sits in the center of a residential area of Ginowan, be moved out of the prefecture and that the land occupied by the facility should soon be returned.

He also called for a sweeping revision of the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement, which governs the operations of the U.S. military in Japan and grants virtual extraterritorial rights to its personnel.

Noting that Okinawa is striving to address difficulties faced by the nation following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami last year and the subsequent Fukushima nuclear crisis “as a member of Japan,” Nakaima urged other parts of the country to think about problems related to the U.S. military presence in the island prefecture.

At present, Okinawa, which accounts for 0.6 percent of Japan’s territory, hosts almost 74 percent of all U.S. military facilities in the country in terms of land area.

Prior to the ceremony, Nakaima presented to Noda a new 10-year plan to promote the prefecture’s economy following the approval of basic policies by the central government last Friday which feature the construction of a second runway at Naha Airport and the establishment of the surrounding area as an international logistics hub.

Tatsuo Kawabata, state minister for Okinawa affairs who along with Noda met with the governor, said the central government will support the prefecture’s efforts to boost its economy.

Okinawa, which lagged behind the rest of the country in postwar development, continues to face a rough road ahead toward economic self-reliance.

Since the reversion, the jobless rate has been running constantly higher than the national average. It stood at 6.8 percent in March, compared with the nationwide average of 4.5 percent.

In Washington, the U.S. government said Monday it is aware of Okinawa’s burden of hosting U.S. military bases and will make efforts to reduce it.