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Looking to and beyond the Summit 2000

By: Kenny Ehman

Date Posted: 1999-08-13

As the year 2000 nears, Governor Keiichi Inamine and the rest of Okinawa are busy preparing the prefecture for the G8 Summit. Billions of yen have been allocated for improving telecommunications, roads, and building necessary facilities. Businesses are currently trying to catch up with the rest of the world by creating internet websites and international marketing strategies.

In June Inamine visited Cologne, Germany, host of this year's summit, on a fact-finding mission to help Okinawa prepare itself for the 2000 Summit. While the talk of the town centers on internationalization, many foreign residents are worried over Okinawa's ability to accommodate such a large gathering of international leaders, liaisons, and foreign press. There is also much discussion by local business leaders about whether or not the prefecture can take full advantage of the future economic potential attached to being the host site.

One of the many problems aired by the international community living here on Okinawa is the Prefectural Government's lack of understanding in organizing a large international event. Quite apart from having to find a large number of interpreters, the government must also educate the general public about the G8 Summit and what it means for Okinawa. Currently most citizens outside of the business community have little information about Okinawa's plans for the meeting between leaders of the world's major industrialized nations . Post offices, banks, and hotels need to be able to meet the demands of handling foreign customers, and employees must be educated in how to serve an international clientele. There also needs to be much more information in foreign languages about Okinawa in general, both on the academic level and on the level of tourism and trade.

Jim Ross, one of the founding members of the newly formed International Society of Okinawa (ISO), feels that many basic points of internationalization are being missed. "The scope of what they (prefectural officials) see as being international is quite different from the way the foreign community views things," he said. Ross also mentioned his concerns over inadequate telecommunications and internet access technology for the foreign press.

The ISO is trying to assist the prefecture and local businesses in supporting next year's summit. Members offer their talents from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities during regularly scheduled meetings, and the group plans to communicate their ideas directly to the prefecture. Although the summit is just one of many issues on the ISO's agenda, the group hopes that the prefecture can benefit from its work.

Preparing for the summit is only half of what members of Okinawa's business community would like to see accomplished; making sure that the rest of the world realizes that Okinawa is an attractive place for commerce is also a major goal. Because of the publicity generated by the summit, many people from around the globe will be seeking information about the island's history, culture, and its prospects for expanding markets. The Naha Junior Chamber of Commerce, one of the moving forces in gathering support for bringing the summit to Okinawa, is hoping to change Okinawa's image - currently it is mostly known for having U.S. military bases - to one that implies international tourism and commerce.

"It's important to create an image of Okinawa as a safe place for tourism," said Yoshinobu Tamaki, president of the Naha JCC. "Right now, ninety percent of Okinawa's tourists come from mainland Japan. We need to increase the amount of foreign visitors to the island."

He also concluded that Okinawa could benefit from a change in regulations that would enable international commercial flights to stop in Okinawa and continue on to other destinations. Tamaki hopes that other changes as well, including lower taxes, relaxing visa laws for foreign tourists, and opening Kadena Air Base to commercial use, can be accomplished to help stimulate international tourism and trade.

Many corporations have been trying to maneuver to make sure Okinawa will benefit economically also after the summit is over. Charles McDermott, Vice President of the American Chamber of Commerce, believes the summit can have many positive impacts on the local economy, but stated a sensible economic strategy must first be implemented. He and other members of the ACC have been critical of the Prefectural Government's Free Trade Zone plan, and have instead been trying to push the concept of a Free Trade Port, which could make Okinawa a major trans-shipment hub in the region.

According to McDermott, Okinawa needs to concentrate on the areas which the economy and infrastructure are best suited. He feels high-tech training centers would be one way to educate the work force and capitalize on labor for business sectors such as telecommunications and data entry centers, which do not need to be centralized in Tokyo. "Okinawa needs skilled workers to keep up with today's fast changing market. The market moves way too fast. It moves one thousand times faster than bureaucracy."

The question now appears to be whether the Prefectural Government can move fast enough before next July.

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