NAGO, Okinawa Pref. — A prefabricated building behind Jisei Asato’s home in the Toyohara district of Nago used to be an office occupied by the Kube Area Economic Promotion Council. It is now closed and bears “for rent” signs.

“Whatever we say, we don’t get our voice heard by the big powers,” said Asato, 81, a former head of the district.

Following a 1996 agreement that the U.S. would return the central Okinawa land upon which the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station is located in five to seven years, this coastal area of Nago became a candidate site for an alternative facility, which is required under the accord.

The majority of Nago residents expressed opposition to playing host to a U.S. base, in a 1996 plebiscite.

But Asato, who hoped his rural community would benefit from a government economic promotion package, campaigned on behalf of the relocation plan on condition that the new facility be constructed far offshore.

His hopes were dashed, however, when a government task force decided in December that the facility, a joint civilian-military airport, will be built on a reef near the coast — a move that many feel will put the ecosystem at risk.

Nago’s anguished decision to receive financial aid from Tokyo in return for accepting the airport symbolizes a dilemma that has plagued Okinawa ever since its reversion to Japanese rule on May 15, 1972.

Even after the 27-year period of U.S. rule came to an end, the U.S. military presence in the prefecture has continued to be enormous.

Some 27,000 U.S. troops are currently stationed in the prefecture, with bases occupying about 20 percent of the main island.

Critics have thus condemned the national government for having poured money into the local economy and using economic assistance as a lever to preserve a hefty military presence in a geopolitically key area for both Tokyo and Washington.

Asato, who remembers when his neighborhood lacked even basic infrastructure, initially urged local residents to grab this “big chance” to achieve sustainable development via national government funds.

“Humans have an everlasting desire to have a better life,” he said.

In terms of the new airport’s potential repercussions for the local community, Asato thought the proposed idea of a floating structure 3 km off the coast would minimize noise pollution and environmental damage.

Believing this would be the prominent option on the table, he backed Tateo Kishimoto, who was elected Nago mayor in 1998, defeating antibase candidate Yoshikazu Tamaki.

But the national government, Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine and Kishimoto have decided to build the airport on the reef — a plan Asato and many local people believe could cause grave damage to the environment.

A land-reclamation scheme now seems likely, although the government has never officially approved this as a concrete strategy.

The national government hopes to decide on a method of construction by late May, but it was apparently reluctant to pursue the floating airport idea due to the potential technical difficulties and huge budget involved.

“The coral reef is alive,” Asato snapped. “If the reef is filled in, all kinds of changes can be anticipated in the current, which will also affect the coast, and the whole environment will surely be destroyed.”

Following Nago’s decision to accept the facility, the national government has pledged to provide 100 billion yen over 10 years to 12 northern municipalities whose combined population stands at around 124,000.

As part of an economic promotion drive for the northern area, the Nago City Multimedia Center and Global Oceanographic Data Center have already been opened, at a cost of billions of yen from Tokyo, near the planned airport site.

Although critics question whether these facilities will benefit the local economy, the centers have provided young people with employment.

The average unemployment rate in the prefecture in 2001 stood at 8.4 percent — the worst in the nation.

The jobless rate is even higher among the prefecture’s young people.

An employee at the oceanographic center said she is grateful for the facility.

“I’ve been interested in computer-related jobs, but it was difficult to find that kind of job in an area where I can commute from home,” said the woman, who is in her 20s.

But there are also projects that have made local residents frown.

In the Toyohara district, a plan to build a new residents’ hall featuring a sports facility has been proposed. But local residents believe managing the complex will become a heavy financial burden for the small village in the future.

Shoichi Chibana, a member of the Yomitan village assembly, likened military bases to drugs that are painful to kick once one becomes addicted to the benefits they provide, referring to economic stimulus incentives provided by Tokyo in return for the heavy U.S. military presence. Other benefits include the jobs the bases provide, the rents the government pays for the land and the local consumption linked to the installations.

When former Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota warned Tokyo of his plans to oppose the construction of an alternative facility for the Futenma base in 1998, the national government hinted that it could halt the economic stimulus measures, scaring business leaders in the prefecture.

In the gubernatorial race later that year, Ota was beaten by Inamine, who pledged to “open the pipeline from the national government.”

Some landowners whose property is being used by the U.S. military depend on lease income for their annual revenues and are reluctant to have their properties vacated without prospective redevelopment plans.

But in Chibana’s case, the opposite was true.

Chibana drew nationwide publicity in 1996 when he refused to renew the lease of his land, which is part of the property where the U.S. Navy Sobe Communications Site sits, with the national government. The incident resulted in the government’s forced renewal of the lease so the U.S. military could continue using the land.

The episode ended about a year later, when the government enacted a law to allow the prime minister to sign a lease contract on behalf of landowners.

“What the government has done to Okinawa these 30 years (after reversion) has been aimed at maintaining the U.S. military presence and has not worked to promote economic independence,” Chibana said.

Though many people in Okinawa have consistently demanded a reduction in the number of U.S. military bases in the prefecture to levels akin to those on the mainland, about three-quarters of the land allocated to the U.S. military in Japan is in Okinawa.

Ota, now a House of Councilors lawmaker, has claimed that crimes, accidents and pollution involving the U.S. military have already driven Okinawans to the limit of their tolerance.

The brutal 1995 rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by three U.S. service members, for example, provoked outrage throughout the prefecture.

Hawaii Gov. Benjamin Cayetano, shortly after the incident, sent a letter addressed to Ota and the people of Okinawa in which he said: “The American military presence in Okinawa can be reduced. Some units or bases could be even returned to the United States — including Hawaii — where they would be more welcome.”

Ota has met the Hawaiian governor as well as other high-ranking U.S. officials and politicians, all of whom have reportedly said they are ready to discuss the issue when formally approached by their counterparts in Tokyo.

Ota complained, however, that Tokyo has downplayed the matter as an “Okinawan problem,” rather than treating the issue as one that affects the entire nation.

Tokyo and Washington boast that the land used by the U.S. military in Okinawa will be reduced by 21 percent once the 1996 bilateral agreement hammered out by the Special Action Committee on facilities and areas in Okinawa is completely carried out.

But most of the base-return projects in the SACO initiative feature provisions to relocate current activities within the prefecture — a scenario that could divide more local communities and provoke environmental concerns akin to those in Nago.

“What made Okinawans happy about the reversion was that they would be able to freely visit the mainland,” Ota recalled. “But as more Okinawans have exchanges with people on the mainland, they may be feeling even a deeper social distance from the rest of Japan.”

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