OSAKA – With U.S. officials pressing Japan to make major progress on the long-stalled relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his new defense minister will have their work cut out getting locals to accept the move.
Most Okinawans want the base gone from the prefecture and have long opposed the government’s plan. Changing their minds over the coming weeks and months may well depend on a separate — but closely related — series of negotiations on the central government’s new 10-year plan for Okinawa’s economic development.
The Okinawa Prefectural Government and Noda’s administration have been locked in intense negotiations for the past six months, trying to hammer out a new long-term strategy.
Since Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972 after 27 years under U.S. administrative control, the central government has compiled and funded four 10-year development plans for the prefecture.
The latest one expires March 31, and Okinawa officials have been intensely lobbing the Democratic Party of Japan-led government to pass legislation to implement a new plan for the coming decade.
The prefecture last year unveiled a vision statement for Okinawa’s development over the next two decades, and officials hope a new 10-year plan through March 2022 will fund many of the projects included.
“We are not looking for a law promoting a state-led plan that would benefit the central government, but one that will promote and support Okinawa’s plan,” Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima told officials from Noda’s government in November.
Over the past decade, the central government has funded Okinawa to the tune of about ¥2.7 trillion. Of this total, roughly ¥940 billion was used to fund state-led projects, while approximately ¥1.2 trillion helped finance prefecture-led projects. The remainder was distributed to Okinawa’s 41 cities, towns and villages for small-scale projects.
Nakaima, however, has expressed concern that state funding has steadily declined since 2002 for the prefectural government and Okinawa’s 41 municipalities, especially for those on outlying islands. By contrast, money for projects directly managed by the central government has slightly increased over the same period.
Complaints over this disparity have been led by Okinawa’s construction firms, which are involved in about 90 percent of prefecture-led public works projects but participate significnatly less in state-led projects.
Starting with the new 10-year plan, the prefecture hopes to secure permission and funds from Noda’s government to turn Okinawa into a major international cargo hub. At the top of the prefecture’s wish list is a plan to construct a parallel runway at Naha Airport, an expansion many local business leaders have long lobbied for. The issue is known in Okinawa as “the other runway debate” with the state, a reference to the ongoing battle over moving the Futenma base.
But in contrast to Okinawans’ stiff resistance to the government’s plan to relocate the base, which would involve building at least one runway extending over water at a new site farther north on Okinawa Island, there is broad agreement that a new runway at Naha Airport is necessary to realize the prefecture’s goal of becoming a major cargo and distribution center, and a bigger tourist destination. The new runway would be at least 2,700 meters long.
Naha Airport has grown steadily busier in recent years. About 14.2 million passengers passed through it in fiscal 2010, making it the fifth-busiest airport in the nation. But it appears difficult to increase its capacity in terms of flights, especially by low-cost airlines to nearby Asian destinations, because the Self-Defense Forces also use its single runway.
In 2007, Nakaima, who had been elected the previous year, said he hoped to have the new runway built and operating by 2015. But since that appears extremely unlikely, both he and the local business community have been lobbying the central government to include the project under the next 10-year plan.
The runway would cost about ¥190 billion and be constructed on partially reclaimed land about 1.3 km from the existing runway.
Preparations for an environmental assessment of the new runway began in August 2010 and are expected to be completed by next year.
Okinawa officials are also calling on Noda’s government to provide funding for the economic development of smaller islands in the prefecture, including money to keep 12 small airports afloat. Some only receive around 10,000 passengers a year and are deep in the red. But Okinawa officials worry that the facilities would have to shut down without support from the central government, making economic development on the islands impossible and effectively marooning residents.
“One of Okinawa’s distinguishing characteristics is that it’s the only prefecture made up of islands. Regular air and shipping routes from Okinawa Island to the smaller ones are critical,” Nakaima previously told central government officials.
Thanks to central government funding, the number of tourists visiting Okinawa over the past decade has risen. But whereas most funds received since 2002 were used for concrete tourism-related projects, such as building new facilities, in the next 10 years Okinawa wants to enhance factors such as language assistance for foreign tourists. It also wants to boost environmental tourism and so-called medical tourism.
About 5.72 million tourists visited Okinawa in fiscal 2010, up from 4.9 million in 2002. The prefecture has projected that 6 million will visit this fiscal year, which ends March 31, generating approximately ¥432 billion in revenue. Roughly 400,000 visitors are expected to come from overseas, mostly from Asia.
How much of Okinawa’s vision will be funded, though, remains unclear. While big-ticket items such as a new Naha runway may well be included in the 10-year plan, securing money to turn the prefecture into a major entry point for goods and visitors from Asia could prove more difficult.
Late last year, Nakaima received indications from the central government that some sections were resisting Okinawa’s demand for far greater autonomy over how to use the money. The governor views greater autonomy as the best way to enhance the decision-making process and use taxpayer money in regard to both construction projects and social welfare services.
He also views the next 10-year plan as a litmus test to determine how committed the DPJ and the Liberal Democratic Party, the largest opposition party, are about decentralization and regionalization.
“Both parties talk a lot about giving local governments more power to decide for themselves how tax money is to be spent, and Okinawa’s unique situation means a higher degree of freedom in planning and spending money will lead to a better use of state funds,” Nakaima said.