Steady progress needed to shape the future of Okinawan development

This year, which marks the 50th anniversary of its return to Japanese sovereignty, is an important milestone in shaping the future of Okinawa. The central and prefectural governments need to work closely together to vitalize the prefecture so that it can develop independently.

A bill to revise the law on special measures for the promotion and development of Okinawa was enacted with the aim of extending by an additional 10 years legislation that had been scheduled to expire at the end of March and continuing development measures.

Since Okinawa’s return to Japanese sovereignty in 1972, the central government has compiled development plans for Okinawa five times, realizing large-scale public works, such as building and improving airports and traffic networks, with funds totaling ¥13.5 trillion.

The economic gap between Okinawa and the rest of Japan has narrowed, and the tourism industry has grown to become the driving force of the Okinawan economy. When Okinawa reverted to Japan, income related to U.S. military bases accounted for 15% of the prefecture’s total income, but the dependency on the bases has dropped, with the figure now at 5%. The development measures over the past 50 years can be said to have produced certain results.

However, the prefecture’s per capita income is only 70% of the national average and continues to be the lowest in the country. The creation of new industries in such areas as manufacturing, information technology and telecommunications has not progressed as expected, and the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the weakness of the prefecture’s reliance on tourism, following a sharp decline in the number of tourists.

Some point out that high subsidy rates for public works and tax incentives, among other measures, may in fact be weakening Okinawa’s competitiveness. The central government should strengthen measures that will lead to development in the prefecture in the future.

The revised law established a new obligation for the central and local governments to make efforts to address child poverty and to promote the development of the prefecture’s remote islands and northern regions.

In Okinawa, the relative poverty rate for children is 29.9%, more than twice the national rate, which is a serious problem for the prefecture. This may be due to the high percentage of people in nonregular employment and single-mother families.

Learning environments and stable employment are needed in order to nurture the human resources that will be responsible for Okinawa’s future. The central and prefectural governments must cooperate and take comprehensive measures in this regard.

Another bill to revise the law on special measures to promote the use of former sites of U.S. bases was also enacted.

Effective utilization of land south of Kadena Air Base, which is scheduled to be returned to Japan, will be a catalyst for the promotion of the development of the prefecture. The central and local governments need to work together to come up with concrete measures that are appealing to the people of the prefecture.

The central government reduced the budget for Okinawa’s development measures in fiscal 2022 to ¥268 billion, the first time it has been below ¥300 billion in 10 years. This might be due to a conflict over the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Prefecture to the Henoko district in Nago in the same prefecture between the central government and ruling parties on one side, and Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki, who has taken a stronger stance against the relocation, on the other.

It is important to realize the relocation as soon as possible to eliminate the dangers posed by the Futenma base, which is surrounded by residential areas, while maintaining the deterrence of the U.S. military. It is hoped that Tamaki will consider the interests of the entire prefecture and look at the big picture to address the issue.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 1, 2022)