In a two-story, 573 square-meter concrete building is a community hall, a kitchen and a lounge with massage chairs. Residents in the city of Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, frequent the facility to enjoy table tennis, karaoke and even swimming in an adjacent pool. All activities, except for karaoke, are free of charge.
The facility is a remnant of the “special privileges” that the city, home to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, has long enjoyed in return for the burden of hosting the U.S. military base.
Located 250 meters from the north gate of the air station, the building, named Asahi Kaikan, is a facility run by the city where a doorkeeper is posted 24/7. Hideo Tameshige, 69, head of a neighborhood association that oversees Asahi Kaikan, describes the building with pride as “a special facility no other neighborhoods possess.”
The facility was founded in 1971, in the middle of the Vietnam War.
Back then, the Iwakuni base was serving as a core strategic foothold for the U.S., attracting an influx of military personnel and bringing with it a slew of problems, including noise pollution, accidents and crimes by servicemen. It was to compensate for these woes that the city took it upon itself to establish the facility as a welfare project.
“Back then, the city would accommodate whatever requests residents would make,” Toshinori Aoki, 86, Asahi Kankan’s first-ever doorkeeper, recalled.
Indeed, the city quickly expanded the facility and erected street lamps. Not only thriving as a hub of employment for many who work for the base, areas near the facility also grew awash with bars and hostess clubs that catered to American servicemen. As a result, the economy in the area enjoyed a boost every time aircraft carriers with servicemen on board arrived in Iwakuni.
Reactions to the base weren’t entirely positive, with labor unions and student activists holding anti-war rallies from time to time. But most of these gatherings were organized by those from outside the prefecture.
“Local residents were instead enjoying a certain sense of ‘superiority’ stemming from the fact their region, as a great contributor to national security, benefited from a wide range of support from the central government,” recalls Saburo Enami, 74, head of another neighborhood association.
A base-related subsidy program initiated by the central government in 1966 has resulted in a total of ¥165 billion being poured into Iwakuni. This fiscal year, too, saw about ¥6.2 billion being initially budgeted for the city under the program, which amounted to about 9 percent of the general account. It is, as some put it, a “bonus” for hosting the U.S. base.
The base has met a strident resistance from residents opposed to its expansion over the years.
The opposition force, however, is gradually losing steam in the city assembly now that Mayor Yoshihiko Fukuda, who backed the transfer of U.S. carrier-based aircraft to the Iwakuni base, has been re-elected for a fourth term and the relocation is now complete.
Former Iwakuni Municipal Assembly member Jungen Tamura, 74, who has long fought for easing the burden of hosting the base, said certain privileges played a major role in alleviating residents’ animosity toward the U.S. military, including free fees for children’s medical treatment and school lunches. Unlike platitudinous slogans such as “the base coexisting with the local community,” the “base money,” as it is dubbed, made tangible contributions to residents’ lives, he said.
“Many residents simply welcomed such money,” he said.
Today, the city is trying to replicate this sense of superiority that residents near the base used to feel, and to expand such preferential treatment city-wide, tapping into base-related subsidies to redevelop local community halls, parks and roads.
It is also making broader use of the financial aid by installing automated external defibrillators in elementary schools and purchasing waste disposal trucks. Adding to these is a ¥15 billion project spearheaded by the Defense Ministry to create Atago Sports Complex, a versatile sports facility residents can use.
Although Iwakuni is best known for its identity as host of the U.S. base today, the beginning of Showa Era (1926-1989) saw its policymakers seek to establish it as a manufacturing hub by reclaiming land and attracting factories.
The turning point came in 1938, right before the Pacific War broke out, when the Imperial Japanese Navy abruptly built an air station, whose control was relinquished to the U.S. military after the war.
This change of course was detailed in an autobiography penned by Shinnojo Nagata, who was appointed the first mayor of a precursor to today’s Iwakuni in 1940.
In it, Nagata makes no secret of his chagrin at how his frantic efforts to construct a portside hub of factories — his longtime dream — went down the drain. “The linchpin that would have made the ‘big city Iwakuni’ was decimated,” he wrote.
About 80 years on, the “big city Iwakuni,” which was at one point indeed expanded by a merger with nearby cities, is now struggling with a shrinking population.
This April saw its population stand at 132,585, down 14 percent from 2006 when it was reorganized. Iwakuni’s depopulation is accelerating at a faster pace than other similarly populated cities in the prefecture, such as Ube, Shunan and Hofu.
Will the “base money” brought by contribution to national security invigorate Iwakuni? Or will it hurt its motivation to grow of its own accord? The fate of Iwakuni is under close scrutiny by other municipalities without such a special bonus.
This monthly feature focuses on topics and issues covered by the Chugoku Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the Chugoku region. The original article was published on July 7.