NAHA, Okinawa Pref. – Okinawa Prefecture on Tuesday marked the 35th anniversary of its reversion to Japan from postwar U.S. control, with tourism booming but woes related to U.S. military bases and a high jobless rate still prominent.
In a group interview Monday ahead of the anniversary, Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima said the situations regarding North Korea and China have kept Okinawa as a strategically important location for defense, despite its struggle to reduce the concentrated U.S. military presence there.
“Considering various situations in the world, such as the issue of North Korea and China’s drastic economic and military expansion, there may be not much difference from the old times when Okinawa was called a keystone.”
About 75 percent of the facilities of the U.S. forces in Japan are located in Okinawa, and even after realignment plans go forward, nearly 70 percent of the facilities will remain there.
But Nakaima added, “Okinawa has been reducing them (U.S. bases) at Okinawa’s pace. We have not stopped.”
On the central government’s economic support to Okinawa for its development, Nakaima evaluated it positively and brushed off criticism that Okinawa is dependent on such subsidies, which are mostly given because of the heavy burden of the U.S. military presence.
Since the return to Japanese rule, the Okinawan economy has been boosted chiefly by tourism. In 2005, it received around 5.5 million tourists, sharply up from around 440,000 just after the reversion. The 100 millionth tourist visited Okinawa this January.
While the prefectural government has long been striving to rebuild the economy into being more self-reliant, various economic indicators show Okinawa lags far behind national averages.
Joblessness in 2006 stood at 7.7 percent, nearly double the national average. Per capita income was around 2 million yen in fiscal 2004, less than half that of Tokyo. The prefecture was able to fund only 27.9 percent of its expenditures with its own revenue sources such as tax receipts, commissions and fees for its services in fiscal 2005, far lower than the national average.
As a way to invigorate its economy, the prefecture is raising hopes for projects using land to be returned by the U.S. military. But moves to return such land has not been making as much progress as the prefecture had envisaged.
In May 2006, as ways to reduce the burden on Okinawa, Japan and the United States agreed to transfer around 8,000 U.S. Marines to Guam and return land used for bases in populated areas.
Some hurdles, however, must be cleared before realizing the agreement, such as demands from Okinawa for a revision on the plan to relocate the U.S. Futenma air station out of Ginowan.
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