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Okinawa’s Railroad Still a Pipe Dream

Date Posted: 2001-01-07

A dream long in the pipeline of constructing a railroad in Okinawa is getting a little bit closer to realization, with 79 percent of the mayors of local cities, towns and villages in favor of the idea. Okinawa is Japan’s only prefecture that has no railroad, which everywhere else in the country is the main means of transportation.

According to a survey of 53 municipalities of the prefecture by the Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper, taken on New Year’s Day, all mayors and village chiefs in Okinawa’s main island said that they regarded it necessary to construct a railway, whereas mayors from outer islands were generally against the idea.

Among those who favored the railway, seven mayors were for a conventional railroad, but 35 mayors suggested that perhaps some other form of rail transportation, such as monorail or city tram would be more effective.

Those mayors that opposed the railroad idea did so mostly on the grounds that it would become a bottomless pit, never able to make money. They pointed out the fact that the prefecture’s largest bus companies are virtually bankrupt and have had to merge. Many also doubted that the monorail in Naha City that connects the airport and Shuri, and is scheduled to go into operation in three years, will ever be viable. “People in Okinawa are so used to using their own cars that it would be very difficult to convince them to switch to any form of public transportation,” one mayor said.

Takeshi Onaga, the newly elected mayor of Naha City, who was largely elected on his pledge to fix the city’s finances, didn’t want to come outright in favor. “I have to think very carefully what we need. This needs a through study and until such a study is done, I cannot say yes or no,” Onaga said.

Although the prefecture has budgeted a small sum of money for a feasibility study of a railway, it is not likely that many of us reading this will enjoy a rail trip through Okinawa anytime soon. Besides the problem of money – Okinawa’s municipalities are in notoriously bad financial shape – there is the question of purchasing the land for the project that can take years. As with many public projects in Japan, a small group of opposing residents and landowners can delay the start of the project almost indefinitely, or at least a lifetime.

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