Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Occupied Okinawa #4: Beyond the Base

In Guam we are already very accustomed to thinking about military bases as being essential, safe and secure engines for an economy. This is true to some extent. In Guam, the military presence and strategic importance opened many doors in terms of Federal funding that Guam would not have received otherwise. Furthermore, the local economy is supported by the income taxes payments for Federal employees on Guam, and that gives some stability to the coffers of GovGuam. The military is also a chance for economic improvement and was something that played a very significant role in creating a middle class on Guam.

One mistake that people often make is believing that the military bases on Guam help tourism. The fact that the US owns Guam does help support the tourism industry, as Guam is considered to be a part of America and therefore gains some of its credibility, sense of stability and so on, but the bases are not part of that. If Guam were a colony with no bases, it could still make use of that.

I have spent the past few days in Okinawa meeting with so many people who see military bases very differently than this.  They are not “crazy” activists, but rather government officials, academics and plenty of “ordinary” people.

There are some in Okinawa who sees the bases as being of great benefit to the island. The bases provides jobs, the servicemen provide some spending, and in general they see them as providing security for Japan from potential threats. But more and more people are beginning to see the bases in less than rosy terms. They see them as a form of discrimination where Okinawa has to shoulder 76% of all the US bases in Japan, despite it only being 0.6% of its land mass. They see them as terrible wounds on the land, scars leftover from the most traumatic event in their recent history, the battle between the US and Japan in World War II.

During my visit I’ve come to realize that an increasing number of Okinawans see the bases as an impediment to their economic progress and to their overall growth as an island. This is something that may come as a shock to most people on Guam who believe military bases to be economic boons.

In Guam it is common to accept the formula that more bases = more economic prosperity, but in Okinawa the judgment is more measured. According to the Military Base Affairs Division of the Okinawa Prefectural Government the amount of money that the US bases provide to Okinawa’s economy actually quite small. Despite taking up so much land and resources the bases only provide 5.3% of the island’s gross revenue. It is for this reason that the Okinawan Prefectural Government is very much invested in reducing the US base presence.  In terms of long-term, sustainable growth, they are much better off if the land was used for other purposes.

Areas such as Naha Shintosan were returned many years ago and have since been transformed into new prosperous commercial and residential areas. The Okinawan prefectural government estimates that when the land is returned by the US military and given new purpose the value of it increased dramatically. In the case of Shintosan, which was formerly Makiminato Residential Area for the military, it is now estimated to be worth 100 times more for the local economy.

If you have ever wondered why the Okinawan people might not want US bases in their island and might want to protest them, the infamous rapes are only part of the problem. In truth if you ever want to understand their opposition you need only go to Futenma Marine Corps Air station in Ginowan City. The base sits in the middle of a heavily populated area and the runaway with the long patches of grass flanking it is a stark contrast to the sea of houses and apartment buildings around it. The base is notorious as “the most dangerous” in the world because of the fact that it sits in a densely populated and any accident there could cause a significant amount of civilian damage or casualties.

The danger of having a base in such an urban area alone might upset you and convince you that the American military presence should be protested. But when you look at the amount of land taken up in such a land-starved area, it is easy to see how a base might be a barrier to growth or development. While it does provide some economic benefits, does the amount of land being used and the amount of the people that directly benefit from it really greater than the benefits should it be developed for greater and more wide spread use? In Okinawa the answer is no.

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