"To regard its economy is frightening indeed," writes Ganji Nishimoto in Kami no Bakudan (Dec), in his report on the "Hidden Poverty" on Okinawa, where the unemployment rate is nearly double that of mainland Japan -- over 5% for Okinawa as opposed to around 3% for the mainland.
The island's economy never really emerged from the prolonged "Heisei recession." A staff member at a local Hello Work job placement office tells Nishimoto he believes the actual unemployment is probably "over 10%."
Poverty affects children in 37.5% of Okinawa's households -- a rate 2.7 times that of the 46 prefectures on the mainland. The prefecture also ranks top in Japan in terms of the percentage of people employed in non-regular jobs, at just under 45%, and its average annual income is about 70% that of the mainland.
Because poverty is becoming ingrained, fewer families can afford to pay for their children's tuition at a university or occupational specialty school, which effectively rules out the chances for a professional or white-collar career.
While many of the island's young women aspire to respectable jobs in the entertainment industry, visits to drinking establishments or sex businesses in mainland Japan will find many Okinawa natives so employed.
A key reason for the island's poverty is sheer distance: Because of its long distance from the mainland, costs for transportation are high. Take Toyota, which operates an assembly plant in Iwate Prefecture. If cars each composed of 30,000 components were to be assembled in Okinawa, production costs would go up considerably. By the same token, exports from the island simply cannot compete in the international marketplace.
Alas, the idea at the time of reversion to develop Okinawa as a tourist destination failed to pay off. Once the value of the Japanese yen began rising against the U.S. dollar, travelers shifted to more affordable beach resorts in other parts of the pacific.
True, in recent years more visitors have been arriving from China, but from last year, trade friction between China and the U.S., along with slowing of growth of China's economy, has put the Okinawans on edge.
Whether pro or con, the issue of the U.S. bases dominates Okinawa's politics in the eyes of both mainland Japanese and the locals, to the extent that it obscures the other economic problems that are responsible for creeping poverty.
While the economies of cities and towns on the Japanese main islands that are located close to U.S. bases do not struggle with poverty, such is not the case for Okinawa. The prefecture's population, at 1.43 million, ranks 23rd out of Japan's 47 prefectures, but it faces an impasse: on the one hand, its economy is "too small" to function as an independent entity, but unlike the Ogasawara islands or Tsushima in Nagasaki, Okinawa is treated by the central government as being "too big" to justify subsidies.
Nishimoto is convinced that as long as Okinawa keeps its status as full-fledged Japanese territory, it will be unable to achieve economic independence. Governor Denny Tamaki has proposed some radical ideas to improve its lot: How about emulating the Chinese slogan of "one country, two systems," for example, allowing it to eliminate all duties on foreign imports and the 8% (soon to be 10%) consumption tax? Or, even to allow it to issue its own currency, the "Okinawan yen," whose value could be set at 30% to 50% below that of Japan's currency. This would halve the cost for package tour visitors and serve as a magnet for visitors from both Japan and neighboring foreign countries.
Devalued currency would also reduce Okinawa's labor costs, thereby immediately creating a pool of workers fluent in Japanese, who would make it unnecessary for Japanese manufactures to locate plants abroad.
Summing up, says Nishimoto, Okinawa's people do not desire a complete independence from Japan, but rather an economic policy that gives them a greater degree of autonomy. And rather than a unilateral policy by which the Japanese government dictates policy re the U.S. bases therein, it would no doubt prefer to approach the issue from the perspective of a three-way negotiations involving Japan, the U.S. and "the autonomous state of Okinawa."© Japan Today