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News Navigator: Is it true US military bases benefit Okinawa's economy?

The American Village commercial district is seen in the town of Chatan, Okinawa Prefecture, on July 1, 2001. (Mainichi)

The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about the impact of the U.S. military bases on the economy of Okinawa Prefecture.

    Question: Are there many tourist spots and new towns in Okinawa Prefecture that used to be U.S. military bases?

    Answer: Yes, there are. The area around the American Village commercial district in the town of Chatan in the central part of the main island and the district known as Shintoshin in the prefectural capital Naha are such examples.

    American Village was modeled after the West Coast of the U.S. It consists of hotels, a movie theater, shopping centers, restaurants, and other facilities, and there is also a beach nearby. The place is popular among young people and tourists. In the past, this area was home to U.S. military facilities including Hamby Airfield and a firing range. After the 1980s, the land was returned to Japan, and this and other reclaimed land were developed into the commercial district we see today.

    The Shintoshin district is located in the northern part of Naha and includes commercial facilities, a large duty-free store, and the Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum. This part of the city was once a residential area for the U.S. military, but was returned to Japan in 1987 and has been developed.

    The Shintoshin district of Naha, lined with a skyscraper, large duty-free store, hotels, and apartments, is seen in this photo taken on Jan. 18, 2012. (Mainichi/Takeshi Noda)

    In addition, the largest shopping center in the prefecture, Aeon Mall Okinawa Rycom, opened in 2015 on returned land previously used for a golf course for U.S. military personnel in the village of Kitanakagusuku in the central part of the main island. There are also places where former bases have been replaced by golf courses and resort hotels.

    Q: I see. What economic benefits have there been?

    A: According to the results of a survey released by the Okinawa Prefectural Government in 2015, the economic benefits from the area including American Village, which stood at 300 million yen (about $2 million at today's rate) per year when it was a U.S. military base, have increased 108 times to 33.6 billion yen (about $233 million) per year following its return. The number of people employed in the area has also increased from zero to 3,368.

    In the Shintoshin district, the economic benefits have increased by 32 times and employment has increased by 93 times. The prefectural government noted, "If the U.S. military bases are reorganized and downsized, and the use of the returned sites is advanced, it will have a positive impact on the prefecture's economy."

    Q: Does the presence of U.S. military bases generate any income?

    The U.S. military housing area that is now the Shintoshin district of Naha is seen in this photo taken from a Mainichi Shimbun helicopter on May 14, 1972. (Mainichi)

    A: There is an indicator called "ratio of base-related income" as a proportion of the total income of prefectural residents. Base-related income includes rent paid to the owners of land used as bases and the incomes of those who work for the U.S. military.

    When Okinawa returned to Japan in 1972, gross prefectural income was 501.3 billion yen (about $3.48 billion), of which base-related income accounted for 15.5%. However, that percentage has declined with the growth of the Okinawan economy and has hovered around 5% since 1990. By 2017, gross prefectural income had increased to 4.67 trillion yen (about $32 billion), and the share of base-related income stood at 6%.

    Some have pointed out that Okinawa's economy will not be able to keep up without the bases, but the prefecture has stated that the impact of base-related revenue on its economy has become limited.

    (Japanese original by Keiko Yamaguchi, Kyushu News Department)

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