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Where are all the shoppers? Curfew shows what base relocation could mean to Okinawa

The Futenma Marine base on Okinawa may finally be relocated to a less densely populated part of the island. But its removal could be a blow to the local economy.

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A military transport plane takes off from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa, Japan, Dec. 2009.

Shizuo Kambayashi/AP/File

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A bustling shopping district outside one of the biggest and most controversial US military bases on Okinawa has become a ghost town.

An entire strip of shops, bars, and restaurants in Ginowan City, has gone out of business, signs with prices in dollars still hanging in the windows. Only a barbershop is open. There, the staff chat, lounging in salon chairs once full of customers.

US military bases nearby used to house the majority of its clientele, but following increased tensions with locals, the military personnel began to follow strict curfews, dealing a significant blow to local businesses along the way.

And last week, after years of back and forth between Tokyo and Washington, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe moved to secure the fate of the Futenma Marine base in Okinawa, which may finally be relocated to a less densely populated part of the island. What appears to be victory for the Japanese – who petitioned for its removal on the grounds that it was too loud, dangerous, and caused problems for residents – could be a further blow to the local economy here.

Since October, American military personnel stationed across Japan have been subject to curfews following the rape and robbery of an Okinawan woman by two US Navy sailors. The men were sentenced in January to nine and 10 years in Japanese prison for their crimes, but many Japanese were enraged by what many saw as another in a long list of attacks on local people.

“The restrictions on the troops going off-base since the incident last year has hit nearly every business around here. Lots of places have closed down,” says taxi driver Tomohide Kiyuna. “The young ones used to get dressed up smart and take taxis into the city at the weekends.”

“I still carry dollars so I can give them change when they pay in US currency,” he adds, pulling a wad of greenbacks from his top pocket. “But I don't need them so much these days.”

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Absence of US dollars

Okinawa hosts about three-quarters of the US military installations and half the personnel stationed in Japan, despite accounting for only 1 percent of the country's land mass. Nearly a fifth of the island is occupied by bases.

The absence of US dollars in the shops in Ginowan may be a precursor of times to come around the island.  As plans move ahead to relocate more troops and bases to other parts of Okinawa and out of Japan, including 4,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam, the owners of businesses that have popped up around them are concerned.

On March 22, Japan's Defense Ministry submitted a plan to the Okinawan prefectural authorities to build a new facility on the northeast coast of the island, to replace the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma base that sits in the middle of Ginowan City.

The latest proposal follows years of often-strained back-and-forth between Tokyo and Washington over the Futenma base, and is blamed for costing former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama his job. In 2010, he resigned after eight months in office after failing to deliver on an election pledge to relocate the controversial facility.

“My basic policy is that we should not leave the Futenma base as it is for a long time,” Prime Minister Abe told reporters in Tokyo last week after submitting the relocation proposal. “I want to do my best to reduce Okinawan people’s burden.” 

Although some locals vehemently oppose the presence of the US military on the island at all, others are conflicted. It has brought undeniable economic benefits to Japan's poorest prefecture, where the average income is less than half of that in Tokyo.

Empty Ferris wheel

A couple of miles from Futenma, the lights of the Ferris wheel at the American Village leisure complex burn bright, but it sits idle, waiting for a smattering of locals to board.  Some 50 percent of its customers come from the nearby bases, according to Satoshi, who manages the wheel and asked only to be identified by his first name.

“I really don't know if I want the bases to go or not. There are a lot of incidents with the military guys that don't even make the news. If there were no problems like that, I'd probably be OK with them,” Satoshi adds. “It would help, too, if we were allowed to go onto the bases the way they can come out, when there aren't curfews. It is Japanese land that the bases are on.”

Masumi Hanashiro, grew up in Ginowan but now manages the Anoten Japanese restaurant six miles away in Naha City, the capital of Okinawa. 

“It's true that the bases are noisy and kind of dangerous, and there have been some terrible incidents. But even with all that, I want them to stay here,” says Mr. Hanashiro. “My father works on Futenma maintaining the water system. The jobs on the bases pay well, and a lot of people apply for them. I tried to get one myself.”

“There's nothing to replace it, especially with the economy the way it is at the moment,” says Hanashiro. “A lot of the people who protest against the bases are older and retired; the young people need the work.”

Conflicted

 This economic argument is disputed by people like veteran antibase campaigner Yoshikazu Makishi.

“When Okinawa was handed back to Japan by America in 1972, around 20 percent of the island's economy depended on the bases, now the figure is 5 percent. And there used to be 25,000 Okinawans working on the bases, now there's only 9,000; those people found other work to do,” says Mr. Makishi.

“If that land was freed up, other businesses would come and use it,” he says.

One plan is to turn the island into an entertainment hub. Hiroshi Osaki, the CEO of Yoshimoto Kogyo, Japan's biggest talent agency and management company, is the man with the vision to transform Okinawa, by transforming the military facilities into a performing arts school. 

“We would like to see young creative people from all over Asia come here and help revitalize the island by building a new industry,” says Mr. Osaki. “But it will depend on whether the plans go ahead to relocate the base. In the end, that's something that the local people have to decide on.”

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