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Economic incentives could sway Okinawa on Futenma

Date Posted: 2012-01-19

It could all come down to a series of decisions made based upon money, as Okinawans look closely at new funding from Tokyo as the current 10-year Okinawa Economic Development Funding approaches its March 31st end.

The decisions are whether or not Okinawa shifts courses and decides accepting Futenma Marine Corps Air Station’s move to the Henoko district of Nago City in exchange for a new, sweetheart deal offered by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s administration. While at first glance something that Okinawa’s governor and Nago City’s mayor say will never happen –Governor Hirokazu Nakaima insists he’ll never sign the papers needed for the land reclamation project at Camp Schwab to begin—the economic signs could tell a different story.

Four 10-year economic development plans for Okinawa Prefecture have been funded by the central government since the island was returned to Japan in 1072 after 27 years under American administrative control. Those programs funding Okinawa’s economy to the tune of ¥2.7 trillion over the past decade, including ¥940 billion to fund state-supervised projects. ¥1.2 trillion covered prefecture projects, and the remainder was doled out to the prefecture’s 41 municipalities. Outlying islands were largely dependent on the handouts to maintain government operations.

A reality is that Okinawa cannot survive and prosper without largess from Tokyo. Naha International Airport is insufficient to meet growing tourism and air cargo requirements, with new terminals and a new 2,700-meters-long runway needed. Nakaima, following his 2006 election, said he’d have the new runway built and in service by 2015, but that doesn’t appear realistic at this point, since ¥190 billion is needed, and that also involves 1.3km of land reclamation similar to what’s needed at Henoko.

Okinawa wants Noda’s administration to cough up the money for prefecture operations, particularly in the outer islands, where a dozen small airports need help. Nakaima’s challenge is in trying to wheedle the money out of Noda with minimal concessions, knowing full well that what the Prime Minister wants is Futenma’s moving to Henoko. Okinawa wants funds without strings attached, and Tokyo likes the strings.

“Both parties talk a lot about giving local governments more power to decide how tax money is to be spent, and Okinawa’s unique situation means a higher degree of freedom in planning and spending money will lead to a better use of state funds,” says Nakaima. Nakaima’s idea is to have control over the decision-making process on funds, and how to use them in both social welfare services and in construction issues.

Noda’s Cabinet wants to go the other way, controlling the money. “We have proposed untied subsidies, a pending issue, for the first time,” says Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, but there are plenty of questions from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and Okinawa as to whether the subsidy concessions are strong enough to sway Okinawa’s objections to keeping Futenma and Marine aviation on Okinawa. Nakaima insists the subsidies are separate from the Futenma issue, but Tokyo wants to link them via subtle pressure in coming months.

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