- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2006

GINOZA VILLAGE, Japan — Among the potato patches and sugar-cane fields in this sleepy community of 5,300 glimmers a palatial building called Kanna Thalasso Okinawa.

The luxurious spa would have never been built without the U.S. military presence on the island.

The spa, described as “the largest thalasso resort in Asia,” boasts 14 kinds of Jacuzzis, saunas, and pools overlooking the azure seas around Okinawa. It also offers thalasso therapies, involving heated seawater and seaweed. The government spent about $20.1 million on the spa before the resort facilities opened in 2003.

About $25 million was also spent to set up a data center in the village. The central government in Tokyo also pays an estimated 150 Ginoza Village residents about $14.7 million in annual rent for U.S. military facilities.

The thalasso spa and the data center are among an increasing number of plush facilities that sprang up in sparsely populated cities and villages in northern Okinawa after the United States and Japan agreed in 1998 to construct a sea-based U.S. military facility off the eastern coast of Nago City, the region’s largest municipality. The facility was to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, located in a densely populated area in Ginowan, a southern Okinawa city.

The Japanese government promised in 1999 to spend about $840 million over 10 years for economic development in the region, of which more than $412 million has beenspent.

Nago is particularly awash with public projects, tax breaks and other financial infusions from the national government. About $37.8 million was spent in the city to put up three “intelligent buildings” on a hill near Camp Schwab. The state-of-the-art facilities — a multimedia center, the 1st Mirai Center and the 2nd Mirai Center — accommodate 16 companies that employ 429 workers. In 2000, the city was a site for that year’s Group of Eight summit of major industrial countries.

Now, Tokyo and Okinawa are working on a multimillion-dollar project to create “the world’s leading graduate school” on the western coast of Okinawa.

Sydney Brenner, a 2002 Nobel laureate in medicine and research professor at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., has been nominated as the founding president of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, which is expected to open in six years.

An official involved in the project said it will cost about $254 million, but others think the cost could be much higher.

Though critics say such plush facilities are financial follies, officials in Tokyo and Okinawa contend that they are needed to spur the local economy, generate more jobs and reverse the region’s population decline.

But those goals are still out of reach.

In Ginoza Village, the thalasso spa attracted about 150,000 customers last year, which was more than expected. However, a village official said the spa incurred debt because of soaring oil prices and damage from seawater. The spa employs only 10 full-time and 30 part-time workers.

Kunigami Village, the northernmost municipality of Okinawa’s main island, recently got a ballpark, tennis court, athletic track field and other recreational facilities. These facilities cost Japanese taxpayers $25.2 million but are a money-losing operation. The lavish government subsidies that the village has received make up a large part of its budget, but is not stanching its population decrease.

“I seriously doubt whether such huge facilities fit their needs,” said Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha.

But Yasunari Uehara, village chief of Kunigami Village, is optimistic that tourists will eventually take note.

“We are not seeking immediate gain,” said Mr. Uehara. “If we take the long view, we need to create such facilities to attract people,” he said.

Such large facilities are “too costly to maintain, so [the local governments involved] are bound to be financially strapped,” said Ryunosuke Megumi, an Okinawa-based political analyst and author. “And then again, they will demand more money from the government.”

In principle, the costly package had nothing to do with Nago’s acceptance of an alternate facility to replace the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station. However, most people agree that money has poured in from Tokyo since the city agreed to host the substitute military facility.

Although the U.S. military presence means deafening noise and occasional accidents and crimes harming Okinawa residents, it also means thousands of jobs and lucrative subsidies from the Japanese government.

“When it comes to economic development programs in Okinawa, technically, they are not related to the U.S. military presence. In reality, however, everyone knows they are,” said Hiroshi Nakachi, professor of law at the University of the Ryukyus on Okinawa.

Okinawans say the economic-development programs fall short because Okinawa has suffered decades of neglect and exploitation at the hands of both the U.S. military presence and Japan’s central government. U.S. military facilities occupy 19 percent of Okinawa’s main island.

Local politicians, however, have grown accustomed to carrot-and-stick political maneuvering, exploiting base issues to obtain more money and projects from the central government, analysts said.

Many Okinawans “think they can get money as long as they raise a loud voice against the U.S. military or complain about Japan’s discrimination against Okinawa,” said Mr. Megumi, the political analyst.

Mayor Uehara said it is natural that the region should receive central government money for agreeing to host a U.S. base. “It would be lying to say they are not linked.”

More Okinawans seem to agree with Mr. Uehara. But they play right into the hands of the government, Mr. Nakachi said.

“For the [Tokyo] government, Okinawa is easy to make a deal with. It is a region that they think they can buy,” he said.

While the northern region was showered with hundreds of millions of dollars, the construction of a sea-based military facility off Nago faltered amid vehement opposition from local residents and environmental organizations. The economic-development programs were also terminated, which suggested they were linked to base issues.

As part of the realignment of American forces in Japan, Washington and Tokyo agreed to relocate the Futenma Air Station to a new airport at Camp Schwab. This plan, however, also prompted fierce local protests. Japan’s Defense Agency suggested that Tokyo give Okinawa money depending on the project’s progress.

As Okinawa’s Nov. 19 gubernatorial election nears, Liberal Democratic Party leaders once again stress the importance of Okinawa’s economic development. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine, indicating that the government will work on economic development measures for Okinawa.

Mr. Megumi, said he was disappointed with Mr. Abe, who is supposed to seek a more robust role for Japan’s military. The analyst met with Mr. Abe’s secretary before the prime minister took office, asking the government not to offer more money to Okinawa.

As long as Tokyo tries to solve a U.S. base issue by giving Okinawa money, it won’t get anywhere, he said.

“The government is preoccupied with North Korea,” he added. The U.S. base issues “can be expected to turn into another debacle.”

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