Okinawa debates future role of U.S. bases Island sentiment favors removing installations

June 02, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NAHA, Okinawa -- When the United States began returning a military base that includes the Sugar Loaf battle site of World War II, Okinawan authorities promised that it would be quickly developed.

That was 19 years ago, and the spot is still a vast vacant lot, 475 acres of mud and grass and hillocks, surrounded by the modern steel and glass office buildings of Naha, the Okinawan capital. It is prime real estate, but full development might still be a decade away.

The example of that expanse of mud and similar experiences throughout Okinawa, a sun-drenched island in southern Japan, have nurtured skepticism about the island's plans to redevelop American military bases.

Okinawa's popular governor, Masahide Ota, has campaigned for the removal of the bases, which take up a fifth of the island and are a linchpin of the American military presence in Asia.

Ota and other Okinawan officials say that the bases are an obstacle to economic development, and they have worked out an "action program" to turn the bases into centers of international commerce and industry.

The problem with this plan is that it will require tens of billions of dollars that Okinawa does not have. Okinawan officials say they believe the Japanese government will finance the development, but skeptics contend that in campaigning against the bases, the local authorities are undermining a pillar of the local economy.

"Right now, Governor Ota is demanding the return of the bases, but I wish he would study economics first," said Seitatsu Arakaki, a former city council member who owns land at the Sugar Loaf site. "If money stops coming in from the bases, the Okinawan economy cannot be sustained."

Arakaki's opinion is unusual, and Ota's campaign against the bases has been hugely popular throughout Okinawa. But some Okinawan business executives and people like Arakaki who own the land used for bases -- and thus enjoy excellent rental incomes -- worry that they will be left with huge and worthless vacant lots if the bases are returned.

Okinawa's problem is that although sentiment is overwhelmingly against the bases, they contribute about $1.6 billion to the local economy each year, amounting to 5 percent of the economy and second only to tourism as a money-spinner. Moreover, Okinawa has virtually no manufacturing; so it isn't clear what would replace the economic role of the bases if they were removed.

"Frankly, the effort to develop manufacturing in Okinawa has totally failed," said Keiichi Inamine, the chairman of the Ryuseki Corp., an oil company in Okinawa.

The Okinawan government's plans for the bases are lofty, with the Futenma air base becoming an "international center for cooperation and exchanges." But officials acknowledge that this is possible only if the national government supplies the funds. By some estimates, the redevelopment of Futenma alone would cost $10 billion, and that's only one base.

Pub Date: 6/02/96

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