Living off the land in Okinawa

November 18th, 2010 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Okinawa: Island of no return

Island of no return

One of the arguments in favor of keeping U.S. military bases on Okinawa is that many Okinawans make a living from the bases. If they were gone, these people would lose income. Among this group are people who own the land where some of the bases are located. The Japanese government pays rent to these people, who number about 3,000.

According to an article in the Asahi Shimbun, the total amount of money paid to these “landlords” in 2008 was ¥6.5 billion. That’s about 8 percent of all the rent paid to all 34,000 landlords on Okinawa. To put this in perspective, the American military controls about 20 percent of Okinawa’s land area (though it only occupies 11 percent), and rent on property accounts for 2 percent of Okinawa’s prefectural production (tourism accounts for about 10 percent). Moreover, only 8 percent of the landlords who get money from the bases receive more than ¥5 million a year. More than half the landlords receive less than a million yen, which means most landlords don’t make a living from the bases.

The upshot is that the U.S. military controls land that might be more economically viable if the residents of Okinawa controlled it. It’s very difficult to develop Okinawa for industry and commercial purposes, which is what many candidates for office in Okinawa want to do, because the position and size of the U.S.-controlled land make it impossible to build continuous transportation networks. Okinawa is the only Japanese prefecture with no rail service. Of course, Okinawa’s agricultural sector was greatly diminished by the U.S. military, which confiscated any land it wanted in 1945 (while detaining its owners indefinitely in camps) and then continued appropriating property as it pleased right up until 1972 when the island reverted to Japanese control. Compare this to the U.S. bases on Honshu. Ninety percent of that land was confiscated from the Japanese military during the American occupation. Sixty percent of the land used by U.S. bases on Okinawa is either private property or owned by local municipalities.

But that doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be enormous financial problems if the U.S. military left. It would require a lot of time and money to redevelop the land so that it could be used effectively for agriculture or industry, which means the Japanese government would probably have to pay for it because the island itself is so poor. It would be more than what they pay now to host the bases. So that’s another reason why the government isn’t so anxious to see the Americans leave.

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2 Responses

  1. Sure, in the southern part of the island, urbanization has grown right up to the previously isolated bases.

    But from eastern Nago on north, there is literally [i]nothing[/i] there, and it’s not US control on that land that is holding development back. It’s just hicksville.

    Developments south of that are there and economically in trouble–i.e., I doubt that they’d want more of the island opened to competing developments. They already have enough trouble staying out of the red.

  2. This is the standard excuse of Okinawa politicians, when you actually probe them into what specifically they are going to do with the land they don’t have a clue.
    Take the sea reclamation project in Awase. When the government changed, Maehara the Minister, visited Okinawa and asked the Okinawa City council what they were going to do with the land when they had finished (bearing in mind they had already spent billions of yen creating land from the sea) cue, embarassed silence and comments of “we might do a hotel” or “we might xxx”, they basically had no formal plans or committments from developers to use that new land. They were effectively jealous of other towns for having a sea front tourist area and wanted the same without considering the location or if they could attract developers. Maehara closed the project down.
    So it’s not lack of land, it’s lack of any kind of intelligent thought to improve what we have.
    The tourist policy sucks, promotion of Okinawa outside Japan is dire, but that could be Okinawa’s salvation.
    In summary, Okinawa politicians blame the bases and Americans because they don’t have any valid policies. It’s the one thing they can focus on. They do ignore the jobs of Okinawan’s on base as well as the support of the local economy. Not just rent, but ancillary businesses such as restaurants, cars, housing, entertainment, bars, ISPs, news & magazines etc.
    Finally, no one ever mentions the cost of replacing the Americans should they leave, Okinawa is in a precarious position with daily incursions by Chinese submarines along the borders as it lies so close to Taiwan, China and Korea. Without the Americans here, common sense dictates that there would have to be a more sizable Japanese SDF in Okinawa. How much would that cost?

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