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50 years on: Development of ex-U.S. sites key to Okinawa growth

  • April 26, 2022
  • , Jiji Press , 8:40 p.m.
  • English Press

Naha, Okinawa Pref., April 26 (Jiji Press)–The development of former U.S. base sites in Okinawa Prefecture is seen as a key to vitalizing the economy of the southernmost Japan prefecture.

A half century after Okinawa’s return to Japan in 1972, commercial facilities and high-rise condominiums stand on former U.S. base sites.

Of the Okinawa land where facilities related to U.S. forces were located during the post-World War II occupation by the United States, about 30 pct has been returned to Okinawa.

About 2 kilometers northeast of the Kokusai-dori major shopping street in Naha, Okinawa’s capital, there is a redevelopment area called Shintoshin, or new urban center, which hosts buildings of public offices, a large duty-free shop and 30-story twin tower condominiums.

The area, where fierce battles took place during World War II, was seized by the United States after the war and was turned into the Makiminato housing area mainly for commissioned officers.

To Okinawa residents, the other side of the fence, with green grass, pools and entertainment facilities, where U.S. military personnel and related people lived, used to be a symbol of wealth.

“Back then, Okinawa was suffering water shortages every year, but the grass inside the fence was green, and it looked like a different world,” said Nobutatsu Maehara, 66, who heads a neighborhood association.

The area was fully returned to Okinawa in 1987, and a large commercial facility was launched in 2002, which drove local residents away from local stores and markets.

“The Shintoshin area changed the shopping style in Okinawa,” said Kazuhiro Shinjo, 59, chief editor at local publisher Borderink.

As of March 2021, about 23,000 people lived in the Shintoshin area. The population has grown some 4,000 in the past 10 years.

The area is still developing. A 13-story hotel has been newly built at the center of the area.

The town of Chatan, about 40 minutes north from Naha by car, has been attracting attention with its American Village resort area inspired by the U.S. West Coast.

The development of local areas progressed after the return of the land that hosted an airfield and a shooting range of the U.S. military in Chatan’s Kuwae and Kitamae districts.

Popular music bands based in Okinawa, such as HY and Orange Range, have performed on the street in Chatan.

“I came here because buildings were pretty in a picture I found on Instagram,” said a 20-year-old vocational school student who visited from Tokyo for her graduation trip.

According to the Okinawa prefectural government, U.S. military facilities are estimated to have brought an annual economic benefit of 300 million yen to the Kuwae and Kitamae districts.

After U.S. forces returned the land, the two districts’ annual economic benefit is believed to have jumped 108-fold to 33.6 billion yen.

As for Naha’s Shintoshin area, the annual economic benefit is estimated at 163.4 billion yen, up 32-fold from the level when the area was occupied by U.S. forces.

Okinawa’s economy still relies on U.S. bases a half century after its return to Japan.

But the share of U.S. base-related revenues in Okinawa’s gross prefectural income dropped to 5.1 pct in fiscal 2015 from 15.5 pct in fiscal 1972.

“An economy dependent on U.S. military bases will reach its limit for sure,” said former Okinawa Vice Governor Moritake Tomikawa, 74, also professor emeritus at Okinawa International University.

“The development of former U.S. base sites would be a major driving force for the development of Okinawa,” he said.

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