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Why Japan’s national land preservation policy is useless

“How much would I have to pay to buy this whole island?” a Chinese tourist asked a souvenir shop proprietor on his visit last summer to Kakeroma Island. Kakeroma is just south of Amami Oshima Island, the main island of the Amami archipelago in Kagoshima Prefecture.

Within a stone’s throw from Kakeroma’s northeastern coast is the uninhabited island of Eniya, where the Ground, Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces in the past conducted joint exercises to practice recapturing a remote island taken by an enemy force.

The Chinese tourist at first did not appear to be joking when he asked about the price of the entire 7,700-hectare Kakeroma Island. In the end, however, he expressed his intension to acquire four plants on the island producing vinegar from sugarcane.

This is but an example of enigmatic moves currently under way to acquire land in the Amami region, a highly important maritime strategic key point between Kagoshima and Okinawa. Shadows of China are seen behind these moves at a time when the Japanese government is planning to build a major military stronghold in the same region, leading to a tug of war between Japan and China over the calm southern islands.

The number of visitors to the Amami region has increased by 20 percent in the past five years thanks to the start of low-cost carrier Vanilla Air’s direct flights from Narita and Kansai airports. Hotel facilities have expanded and new car rental outlets have opened up since the region is expected to be registered as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site in May this year.

In the midst of this tourist boom, Royal Caribbean Cruises, a leading American cruise tour operator, started looking for a site in Amami Oshima for anchoring its luxury liners. The anchoring plan was first proposed to the Ashitoku community in the northeastern part of the island but met opposition from its residents. Then another community of Nishikomi raised its hand to welcome the plan. Nishikomi, with only about 30 residents, faces uninhabited Eniya Island, the site of the SDFs’ island military exercise.

Enthusiastic about the plan is Masuo Kaneko, a Liberal Democratic member of the Lower House whose constituency includes Amami Oshima. The plan envisages a 220,000-ton luxury liner with more than 7,000 passengers and crew members dropping anchor off the community. The Kagoshima Prefectural Government is also enthusiastic. It has recruited a high-ranking official of the transport ministry’s Ports and Harbours Bureau as the deputy head of its public relations and tourism strategy division to be in charge of dealing with cruise ship issues. There also are rumors about constructing huge resort facilities around the community.

But a member of a think tank specializing in matters related to national boundaries and remote islands issued a warning by saying, “It would be risky to permit construction of resort facilities in a remote island if all the people involved — their owners, staffers and guests — are foreigners, like those at Tomamu and Sahoro in Hokkaido.”

Another source well versed in local affairs says, “Nishikomi’s geographical features are not suited to the maneuvering of cruise ships. I suspect that the Japanese government is using the idea of constructing resort facilities as bait with the ultimate intention of turning the area into a military fortress.”

At present, Amami Oshima is a home to a small 20-member detachment of the Maritime Self-Defense Force. But during fiscal 2018 beginning in April, 560 Ground Self-Defense Force members are scheduled to be stationed on the island. A 350-member unit responsible for firing medium-range surface-to-air guided missiles will be located in the northeastern part of the island and a 210-member unit tasked with launching surface-to-ship guided missiles in the southwestern part.

A part of a former golf course (35 hectares) and town-owned land (48 hectares) will be converted into the defense facilities, with a total of ¥55 billion poured in two years.

The source quoted above points out that the GSDF plans will leave the western part of the island weak in terms of defense capability. “Therefore I suspect that the government will improve the infrastructure around Nishikomi as a step toward building new SDF bases in the western part.”

During World War II, the area around Nishikomi and the waters around Kakeroma were important for the Imperial Japanese Navy, which had bases there. A Defense Ministry insider explains: “Within the Ryukyu arc (a series of islands stretching from Kagoshima to Taiwan), Amami is of utmost geopolitical importance next only to Okinawa and is a central island along with Okinawa. It is regarded as a barrier for China’s advance into the Pacific Ocean.”

While it is only natural to try to concentrate SDF facilities in Amami Oshima in view of the rising geopolitical risks, this move and the government’s policy for national land maintenance are not in sync with each other.

About a year and a half ago, some 69.3 ares of coastal land formerly owned by a town in the eastern part of Amami Oshima was sold to a citizen of Hong Kong who heads a trading company there. The town had received large contributions from this person. It also benefits from fixed property tax revenues emanating from the otherwise useless land. The company is said to be engaged in intelligence business dealing with nautical charts and maritime information. The company head also owns a total of 198 ares of land in the neighboring area.

The area, which juts out like a peninsula, boasts a beautiful view and is best suited for resort facilities. But moves to acquire land go far beyond the area, with many realtors hunting for land in the adjacent area during the past three years, leading to higher land prices. Such moves have now spread into forest-covered inland areas. Local real estate brokers tell landowners that an American company is approaching them for land. But it is not clear how true the story is.

Land acquisition moves have also appeared in other areas of Amami Oshima. Around the summer of last year, a young wealthy Chinese man asked parties related to the areas to find him available land. Although he allegedly said he had been attracted by the beautiful scenery and the sea and would like to enjoy diving, his real intention is unclear. In the Ashitoku area of the island, a company with Singaporean capital has already purchased a number of cottages. All these moves have led local auto dealers to change their businesses to real estate trading.

The rulers of the Amami region have changed over centuries — the Ryukyu dynasty (from the 15th to 17th century), the Satsuma feudal clan (from the 17th century to 1871), Japan (from 1871 to 1945), the United States (from 1945 to 1953) and by Japan since 1953. Despite these changes of the rulers, what has not changed is the islanders’ consistent longing for peace. It would not be wrong to presume that they loath to see their areas being turned into military bases next in importance to the adjacent Okinawa or foreign capital buying up land in their areas. As a result, the opposition to visits by foreign cruise ships has started to show signs of anti-American sentiment like in Okinawa.

The very root of all these problems lies in the government’s low degree of consciousness with regard to preservation of national land as exemplified by its failure to give any consideration to moves to buy up land in the Amami region while it is seeking to build military bases there. This attitude of the government is symbolized by the indifference to the problem shown by the “self-claimed conservative politician” who is serving as prime minister.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the February issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering political, social and economic scenes. English articles of the magazine can be read at www.sentaku-en.com