NAGO, Okinawa Pref. — It’s a chilly, rainy evening in late January, but more than 1,000 people pack the center of town to hear a speech by Yoshikazu Shimabukuro, the head of the Nago Municipal Assembly.

Less than 24 hours later, voters elected Shimabukuro mayor by a wide margin over his two rivals. All three candidates oppose the agreement reached last October between Japan and the United States to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station in Ginowan to a coastal and offshore area adjacent to Camp Schwab near the Henoko district in eastern Nago.

But unlike his rivals, Shimabukuro downplays the base issue, mentioning it only once in his 30-minute address, stressing economic development instead. That, other local politicians agree, was a smart move that contributed to his victory.

“Many in Nago say they don’t want the base but are afraid of opposing it too loudly because it would mean no central government funds for economic reform. It’s a kind of colonial mentality that you see not only in Nago, but also throughout Okinawa,” said Nago assemblyman Yasuhiro Miyagi, a staunch antibase activist.

When talking to Okinawans of all political stripes, as well as many Japanese experts who study the base issue, the conventional perception of Okinawa is that it’s a military colony subject to rule by Tokyo and the United States.

Given the complexities of Okinawa’s relations with both the central government and the U.S. military, it’s not hard to see why.

A look at the official numbers shows just how dominant the role of the U.S. military is in the prefecture.

Okinawa accounts for less than 1 percent of Japan’s total land area, but is home to 75 percent of all military facilities used exclusively by the U.S. forces in Japan.

About 10.4 percent of the total land area in the prefecture is used by the U.S. military, but the bases occupy 19 percent of the main island. The U.S. has 37 facilities in Okinawa in all.

Some 50,000 U.S. military service members and their families live in Okinawa. Of these, about 21,000 are marines. Another 16,000 are airmen, stationed mostly at the huge U.S. Air Force Kadena base.

The remainder are army and navy personnel, and civilian workers.

Those who argue that Tokyo and Washington treat the prefecture as a colony point to the economic impact of the bases to support their case. A January 2005 report by the U.S. Forces Japan Okinawa Area Field Office, using data compiled from official Japanese and U.S. government sources between 2001 and 2003, estimates the U.S. military presence in Okinawa accounts for at least 6 percent of the prefecture’s economic output.

The report estimates that in 2003, the U.S. military presence in Okinawa was worth about $1.9 billion in total direct spending by both Japan and the U.S. to the local economy.

Of this, the Japanese government spent about $1.33 billion in Okinawa, or 70 percent of the total, while the U.S. share was about $582 million.

Lease payments for land used by bases to about 32,000 Okinawa residents, which are paid for by Japan, accounted for $603.5 million, or 31.5 of total spending.

Base-related contracts for goods and services, paid for by the U.S., were worth $398.4 million, or 20.8 percent of the total. The U.S. spent another $183 million, or 9.5 percent, for off-base housing, vehicles and other expenses.

But despite the economic boost the bases provide, unemployment, especially among younger Okinawans, remains severe.

The report notes that in fiscal 2002, unemployment in the prefecture was about 8.7 percent, compared with a national average of 4.6 percent and more than double the 3.9 percent recorded in 1990.

Per capita income was 2.125 million yen annually, or about 71 percent of the national average, although this is up from only 60 percent of the national average in 1972, the report says.

In March 2002, U.S. bases in Okinawa employed 8,703 local residents, making the U.S. military the second-largest employer behind the prefecture, which had about 26,000 employees.

The average monthly salary for Okinawans working on the bases was 293,656 yen. During 2002, the report says, local labor offices received over 22,000 applications to work on the bases.

To reduce its dependence on the them, Okinawa has pushed hard to become a tourist destination.

In 2005, 5.5 million people visited Okinawa and income from tourism topped 400 billion yen. Of these visitors, 136,500 people were from abroad, a 5.4 percent increase compared with the previous year.

“For 2006, we’ve set a goal of 5.65 million tourists and hope tourism-related revenue will be around 435 billion yen,” said Yoshiro Shimoji, associate director of the prefecture’s department of tourism, commerce and industry.

Attracting foreign tourists to Okinawa is a priority, Shimoji said, but several problems remain.

Unlike resorts in Southeast Asia, there are no first-class international hotels in Okinawa and there are few overseas flights.

To create the infrastructure needed to build a world-class tourist industry, massive investment from outside Okinawa is needed.

Just where this investment will come from is on the minds of those who lease land to the U.S. military, many of whom took out long-term mortgages on their land on the assumption that rental income from the bases would continue well into the future.

If the land is returned to the owners, it runs the risk of sitting idle until money for redevelopment can be found, forcing owners to shoulder the cost of property taxes. And most people here agree that such huge investments would have to come from outside Okinawa.

Thus Okinawa politicians who oppose the bases but fear the fallout from their closure are pushing the central government to provide subsidies and investment schemes to ensure the loss of a base does not mean a corresponding loss of jobs or income.

Meanwhile, Nago Mayor Shimabukuro hints he might compromise on hosting the new facility at Henoko under certain conditions, including more central government subsidies for civil engineering projects and new business development.

But antibase activist Teruko Kuwae, who also leases land to the U.S. military, said the only way to truly break the cycle of dependency on money from the central government and the U.S. is to get rid of the bases.

“It’s our land. If the U.S. bases leave, we can decide how we want to develop it. The most important thing is to have the freedom to decide for ourselves,” she said.

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