Nakaima recounts fall and rise of Okinawa



Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima was a bureaucrat at the now-defunct Ministry of International Trade and Industry when Okinawa reverted back to Japanese control in 1972.

Asked about his emotions at the time, Nakaima, 72, said in an interview in early March that he felt he “had become Japanese both in name and substance,” after spending nearly 30 years under the postwar rule of the United States.

With Okinawa preparing to mark the 40th anniversary of its reversion May 15, the governor last month shared his thoughts and views about his childhood years in the prefecture, the changes he has seen there since 1972, and the contentious presence of U.S. military bases.

Nakaima was born in the city of Osaka in 1939 but moved to Okinawa as a child and was raised in the prefecture until enrolling at the University of Tokyo. His parents were Okinawa natives, and he experienced the U.S. administration of the area first-hand.

After his graduation from the University of Tokyo, which he attended as a “foreign” student because Okinawa was not under Japan’s sovereignty at the time, he joined MITI, the powerful predecessor to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, in 1961.

Nakaima went on to serve as chairman of Okinawa Electric Power Co. and was elected governor in 2006. He is currently serving his second term.

The following is an excerpt of last month’s interview at the prefectural government’s office in Naha:

How did you feel at the time of Okinawa’s reversion in 1972?

MITI had assigned me to the New York office of the Japan External Trade Organization in 1969 and I worked there until just before the reversion. Whenever I was asked which country I was from, I felt hesitant to say, “I’m Japanese.” Okinawa was under the administration of the United States then, and I was even issued a “passport” so I could travel to Japan.

When I joined MITI in 1961, I recall having to go through a screening to determine whether I was considered a Japanese or overseas employee.

Under U.S. rule we were denied the basic human rights and prosperity Japanese on the mainland enjoyed, and we have carried that postwar legacy for many years. People in the prefecture longed to return to Japanese control, and when the reversion finally took place I felt completely overwhelmed.

Did any event make a particularly strong impression on you after the reversion?

Taichi Sakaiya (who later headed the now-defunct Economic Planning Agency) had joined MITI one year before me. Around that time, a decision was made to partly turn the 1975 Okinawa Expo into a celebration of the reversion.

Sakaiya, who firmly believed in the benefits of staging such events, was scrambling to lay the groundwork for the expo, while Chobyo Yara, Okinawa’s first governor, also made frequent visits to MITI to help organize the event.

You headed the trade and industry division of the Okinawa General Bureau for a while. What were your thoughts on developing Okinawa back then?

I had lived in Tokyo since graduating from university, and I couldn’t fully grasp some aspects of the changes taking place back home. I therefore expressed my wish to be posted in Okinawa so I could keep myself informed about such issues.

The reversion took place while Japan’s economy was making massive strides. At the time, everyone felt motivated and inspired as Japan was clearly building momentum to become one of the most powerful economies in the world. We were all really revved up.

Because Okinawa’s infrastructure development was lagging behind the rest of the country, the central government provided ample subsidies and increased public works projects in the prefecture, leading to the construction of modern airports, ports, roads, housing and schools.

On the 40th anniversary of the reversion, what are Okinawans especially proud of?

Although the government has offered virtually no assistance to promote tourism in the prefecture, Okinawans have developed the industry on their own and turned it into a major source of revenue. I believe that’s something we can be proud of.

There is also the San-A supermarket chain, one of the largest employers in Okinawa, that was founded on Miyakojima Island. The company has fought off competition from giant retailer Daiei Inc. and is now holding its own with another powerhouse, Aeon Co.

Okinawa’s entrepreneurship should not be overlooked. I can give you the names of at least 100 businesses we are proud of, and which have the potential to compete in Asia.

The region’s culture is another source of pride. For example, Okinawan groups and artists specializing in traditional native island songs and music have now been accepted nationwide.

Even so, it has been a tough, long road to come this far, and we still aren’t strong enough economically to stand on our own two feet. I can list various issues and we have reached the point when we absolutely have to tackle them, one by one.

What are your views on the U.S. military bases in the prefecture?

Traditionally, defense issues in Japan have been controlled by just a handful of people, such as our reliance on the bilateral security treaty with the United States. But we are now moving toward a phase when people all across the country are debating security issues.

But the overwhelming concentration of U.S. military facilities in Okinawa deeply angers most locals, and the U.S. Futenma air station in downtown Ginowan (in Okinawa) is like building a base in Hibiya Park (in Tokyo). Okinawans hope the situation will improve sometime soon.