A special exhibit jointly sponsored by the Okinawa Prefectural Government and the City of Ginowan which opened at the Ginowan public library on Aug. 12 enables library users to explore the space occupied by Futenma Air Station after its return through virtual reality, asking them to share their views on the future of the returned land.
Under the agreement reached between the Japanese and U.S. governments about five years ago on the return of U.S. military facilities and sites south of the Kadena Air Base, the Futenma base was set to be returned as early as FY2022. Ahead of this agreement, the Okinawa and Ginowan governments had decided on concrete plans to develop the returned land, including the construction of a major highway passing through the airfield.
However, it is now impossible to meet the goal of returning the Futenma base by FY2022. A senior government official cites “Governor Takeshi Onaga’s persistent opposition to the transfer of the Futenma base’s functions to Henoko, Nago” as the main reason.
Construction work to build runways in Henoko is underway but it has had to be suspended from time to time on account of the lawsuits filed by the Okinawa government for the purpose of blocking Henoko relocation. Citizens opposed to relocation have also been sabotaging the plan. A senior Defense Ministry Official laments, “We are two or three years behind schedule.”
The government has decided to put off pouring soil into the Henoko reclamation area, which was originally scheduled for Aug. 17, citing “inclement weather due to the typhoon” as the reason, but Tokyo appears to be adopting a cautious approach so as not to provoke the relocation opponents ahead of the gubernatorial election that will now be held earlier than scheduled due to Onaga’s sudden death.
The delay in plans to return military land is not the only problem. There have also been cases of returned base land not being utilized.
The Nishi-Futenma Housing Area, some 51 hectares of land which was part of Camp Zukeran, was returned by the end of March 2015 and handed back to the landowners in March this year.
The national, prefectural, and city governments and the landowners’ association have held 14 meetings, starting before the base land return, to discuss how to utilize the returned land. One of the proposals is to relocate Futenma Prefectural High School, which is becoming crowded. Yet the prefectural government has not made any progress in acquiring land from the owners, so it has not been able to secure enough land for the relocation of the high school. As a result, the plan was derailed last April.
A senior Okinawa government official close to the late Onaga reveals, “If the relocation of Futenma High School were realized, that would become an ‘achievement’ of Ginowan Mayor Atsushi Sakima, who is supported by the government and the ruling parties. We could not afford to be a party to this.”
In connection with the return of U.S. military bases, another big problem faced by municipalities in Okinawa is how to break away from the “structure of dependence.”
Rent paid for U.S. military base land is a source of income for local residents and municipalities. In addition, local governments receive subsidies from the national government based on the land area of the bases and the number of U.S. military personnel stationed there. The return of bases will mean a reduction of subsidies.
The return of some 4,000 hectares of the Northern Training Area straddling the villages of Kunigami and Higashi in December 2016 was the largest–scale return of military land after Okinawa’s reversion to Japanese administration in 1972. This reduced Okinawa’s share of U.S. Forces Japan (USFJ) facilities from 74% to around 70%. Kunigami stood to lose about 178 million yen in subsidies, while Higashi would lose about 76 million yen, which made up 2.9% and 2.3%, respectively, of the village’s revenues.
Higashi’s planning and tourism section says: “A reduction in subsidies would make the village’s finances unsustainable.” Kunigami’s general affairs section says the problem for the village is that some 80% of the returned land is national forest, which cannot be used to build factories or for other development purposes. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has decided to continue providing government subsidies “as an exception for the time being.”
While grateful for the Abe cabinet’s generous support, Kunigami Mayor Hisakazu Miyagi remains pessimistic. He stated grimly: “We must think of ways to become self-reliant.”
What kind of vision for Okinawa’s future will be developed while steps are being taken to return U.S. military bases to reduce the Okinawans’ base-hosting burden? Candidates need to come up with concrete proposals in the gubernatorial election. (Slightly abridged)