Foster Okinawa’s economic growth, stability to build future / Central, prefectural govts must cooperate on bases

It is important to bring about Okinawa’s self-sufficiency and growth, building on the efforts made over the past half century. A new era must be established through firm cooperation between the central and prefectural governments.

It has been 50 years since Okinawa Prefecture was returned to Japan. At a ceremony held on May 15, 1972, then Prime Minister Eisaku Sato said: “Today, Okinawa reverted to the home country. I want to humbly report this to the millions of souls who sacrificed their lives in the past war.”

Okinawa was devastated at the end of the Pacific War, with many people killed in the fierce ground battles. This day is an occasion to think once again about Okinawa’s history of repeated hardships even after its reversion to Japanese sovereignty.

Half century of effort

Okinawa was under the rule of the United States for 27 years after the war, and there was a huge gap between Okinawa and mainland Japan, which achieved rapid economic growth.

The development of Okinawa over the past 50 years has been remarkable. The prefecture’s population, which was 960,000 in 1972, has increased by 50% to 1.46 million. The transportation network has been improved, and the severe water shortage has been resolved through the construction of dams and other measures.

According to a Yomiuri Shimbun opinion poll, more than 80% of Okinawa residents think the prefecture has been developing steadily. Although issues remain, such as the large number of U.S. military bases still in the prefecture, it can be said that the steady efforts made to date have borne fruit.

The current Okinawa economy is supported by the tourism industry. About 10 million tourists visited Okinawa in 2019, before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

It is necessary to take advantage of the charms unique to Okinawa Prefecture and link them to further growth. The prefecture should formulate a strategy and take the initiative.

For the past 50 years, the main focus of promotion measures has been to correct the gap between Okinawa and mainland Japan. The government has repeatedly extended the special measures law on Okinawa development and injected a total of ¥13.5 trillion of budgets in the region, but economic independence is still a long way off.

The manufacturing industry, which should have formed the foundation of the local economy, has not been able to grow due to shipping costs and other obstacles. Okinawa Prefecture is highly dependent on tourism and other tertiary industries, and the prefectural income continues to be among the lowest in the country. There is a large percentage of nonregular workers, and the unemployment rate tends to be high.

The challenge is to foster industries that are resilient to economic fluctuations and stabilize the employment and livelihoods of the prefecture’s residents. The central and prefectural governments should focus on fostering high-value-added industries, such as logistics that take advantage of the prefecture’s geographical position as a hub for Asia and the creation of bases for digital-related fields of business.

The highly regarded Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University, which conducts advanced research, draws engineers from overseas. The institute should further deepen its cooperation with industries.

Another issue is the high rate of poverty among children compared to the mainland. The percentage of single-mother families is high, and government support is inadequate. The prefecture must strengthen academic and financial support and break the cycle of poverty.

Okinawa’s location between the Pacific Ocean and the East China Sea makes it particularly important in terms of security.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reminded the international community of the risk of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. If a military conflict over Taiwan were to occur, it would inevitably have a serious impact on the security of East Asia.

Security importance increasing

China has repeatedly conducted drills passing through the waters around Okinawa and out into the Pacific Ocean. The current situation in which repeated incursions are made into Japan’s territorial waters off the Senkaku Islands can never be left unchecked.

The presence of U.S. forces in the region is the foundation of Japan’s security framework. It is essential to strengthen the deterrence of the Japan-U.S. alliance and ensure that Japan is fully prepared for contingencies.

Although the burden of hosting U.S. military bases is heavy, the opinion poll showed that a majority of Okinawa residents agree that the bases contribute to Japan’s security.

As the security environment in Asia becomes increasingly severe, these results likely reflect a renewed recognition of the importance of the bases.

Although U.S. military facilities in Japan have been returned in stages, about 70% of the facilities exclusively used by U.S. forces in Japan are still located in Okinawa. The full return of the Futenma Air Station in the city of Ginowan in the prefecture has still not been realized, a quarter of a century after an agreement was reached between Japan and the United States for its return.

The government and the prefecture should quickly break the deadlock of the current unconstructive standoff over the relocation of the air station to the Henoko district in the city of Nago in the prefecture.

Preserve vibrant culture

The return of U.S. military facilities south of Kadena Air Base and other areas is scheduled to continue. Local governments need to devise attractive measures to take advantage of the sites and link them to the economic growth of Okinawa as a whole.

Okinawa, with its roots in the Ryukyu Kingdom, is blessed with a unique culture founded on interaction with China, Southeast Asia and other areas. Many masterpieces of art and craft works remain in the region. The reconstruction of Shuri Castle, which was destroyed by fire in 2019, must be sped up.

It is important to further enhance Okinawa’s presence as an economic and cultural center. This will be the foundation for Okinawa’s prosperity and regional stability.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, May 15, 2022)