National / Politics | Beyond Tokyo

Base-laden Okinawa vies to become tourism magnet

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Just a couple minutes from the Okinawa Prefectural Government building and the busy shopping street Kokusai-dori, Sora Shokudo offers jerk chicken on the menu — a Caribbean cuisine that goes well with rum — which is now also produced in Okinawa and attracting interest from domestic and overseas tourists.

“Okinawa grows sugarcane and so it’s natural that we’d produce different varieties of rum,” says owner and Okinawan rum expert Masahiro Aoyama, where about 10 different varieties of locally made rum are offered.

The bitter struggle between the prefecture and the central government over the unpopular plan to move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from crowded Ginowan to Henoko, a coastal district in Nago further north on the main island, has dominated political commentary and media coverage for the past two decades.

But in recent years, the prefecture has been getting a huge amount of central government funding to develop its tourism and transportation infrastructure in order to become a major tourism hub in Asia.

In a 2013 deal with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, former Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima gave Tokyo the green light on the Futenma relocation plan in exchange for promises of at least ¥300 billion a year in central government subsidies for local infrastructure projects.

Though public anger over Nakaima’s approval led to his ouster, Abe has kept his word on the funding. Last year, the central government provided Okinawa with just over ¥300 billion in subsidies.

Okinawa has three major infrastructure projects that are the subject of local and national political focus. One of them is set to be completed next year, while negotiations continue over who will fund the other two.

Okinawa’s total development budget request for fiscal 2019, which begins on April 1, is ¥319 billion. Of this, about ¥227 billion includes funding for a project Okinawa has long sought — a second runway at Naha Airport that is slated to open in 2020.

“We will proceed with the construction of the second runway at Naha Airport with an aim to start the service in March next year. By expanding the arrival and departure capacity of the airport significantly, we will strengthen its functions as an airport hub connecting Japan and the rest of Asia,” Abe said in his January policy speech.

The new 2,700-meter runway means Naha Airport will be able to handle up to 188,000 takeoffs and landings annually, up from 166,000 in fiscal 2017.

But there are concerns about how much flights, and thus Okinawa’s tourism industry, can grow even with a new runway.

A recent editorial in the Ryukyu Shimpo, a local newspaper, noted that U.S. flight patterns and air space restrictions at adjacent Kadena Air Base could restrict use of the second runway.

In addition, Naha Airport is jointly used by the Self-Defense Forces. So if more SDF aircraft are scrambled, that could mean additional runway delays for civilian flights.

Still, with completion of the second runaway in sight, Okinawa officials, including Gov. Denny Tamaki, who was elected last year to oppose the Futenma relocation plan but is a proponent of public infrastructure development, are turning their attention to the two other projects on Okinawa’s wish list.

These include a public railway system that would connect Naha, the prefectural capital in the south, to Nago, about 70 km north. In 2014, a few months after Abe and Nakaima reached their deal on Henoko, a series of proposals for the railway were made public.

Last year, a route that would connect eight cities and towns, including Ginowan, emerged as the local favorite. If built, the travel time between Naha and Nago, now a two-hour trip by bus, would be shortened to an hour.

Construction would take around 15 years and cost an estimated ¥610 billion. Given the lack of rail transportation between the more prosperous Naha area and the less-developed north, residents on the main island are in favor of the plan even if there are questions about the price tag.

“At present, the central government is conducting various surveys on the proposed route, and we’re consulting with officials of the eight cities where the rail system would pass through. While there is a lot of support locally, there is also concern about who would pay,” said Yutaka Miyagi, a prefectural official involved with the project.

The third major infrastructure project Okinawa eventually hopes to get is a large venue for attracting international conferences, conventions and trade exhibitions — something that would include adjacent luxury hotels and shopping centers. Plans are underway to build such a facility on the eastern side of the island.

“There’s no detailed plan of action yet. But we believe that Okinawa has several advantages. It’s the only place in Japan where you have the necessary urban environment for business exchanges in a resort island atmosphere with a tropic climate,” said Yoshifumi Kishimoto, a local tourism official.

Not mentioned in the plans is the prospect of a casino. While there have been suggestions among some local leaders in the past that the prefecture might benefit from a casino resort, Tamaki has said it is not necessary.

Most of the members of the Okinawa Prefectural Assembly have also opposed or expressed skepticism about casino gambling.

But building the Naha-Nago rail line and a major conference center are deemed critical needs by Tokyo and Okinawa if the prefecture is to meet its goals of reeling in 12 million visitors a year by 2021 and turning itself into a regional hub for business and tourism.

Last year, visitors to the prefecture topped 9.8 million. That included over 2.9 million from abroad, the largest number being from Taiwan (889,000), mainland China (632,000) and South Korea (555,000), with another 583,000 from other countries.

While Okinawa Prefecture moves forward with attempts to complete major infrastructure plans and draw more tourists, local businesses, like Sora Shokudo, continue to innovate and expand, paying attention to increased demand from domestic and foreign travelers, especially for products like rum that are universally known but have a uniquely local flavor, which perhaps sums up Okinawa itself.

Beyond Tokyo is a new series that focuses on regional developments and events of national importance elsewhere in Japan.