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Tradition Caught in Pinch as Japan Pushes Development of Okinawa

December 06, 1987|KUMIKO MAKIHARA | Associated Press

ISHIGAKI ISLAND, Japan — Fisherman Keiichi Yonaha says he can locate 63 coral niches where octopuses hide in a lagoon teeming with fish. But he laments that a planned airport will bury his undersea coral garden along with his livelihood in the rush to develop Okinawa.

The debate on Ishigaki Island between developers seeking increased tourist revenue and villagers who want to preserve their traditional way of life reflects a struggle throughout the whole of Okinawa over development since it reverted to Japanese rule in 1972.

"It's been too much too soon," said Etsujiro Miyagi, a journalism professor at the University of the Ryukyus. "The hardware improved dramatically. But socially and mentally we could not keep up."

The Japanese government has pumped about $29 billion into its southernmost prefecture (state), building highways, schools and tourist resorts to boost the standard of living. But the southern island chain remains one of the poorest regions in the country, with the highest jobless rate.

Identity Crisis

Islanders also grapple with an identity question: Are they or are they not Japanese?

Once the Kingdom of the Ryukyus with strong links to China, Okinawa was semi-independent until Japanese troops took over in 1879. Okinawa was the site of the only battle fought by U.S. forces on Japanese soil in World War II, and the clash was one of the war's bloodiest. The Japanese lost 101,000 men, and American casualties were 48,000 in April to June, 1945.

The Americans kept control of Okinawa for two decades after the war, although they lifted the occupation of mainland Japan in 1952.

A U.S. presence remains today in sprawling military bases and English street signs and shop names. About 30,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed at American bases that cover about 20% of the main Okinawa Island.

Income Source

For Okinawa's 1.2 million residents, the bases are both a reminder of the war and a major source of income.

In a survey last September by the newspaper Asahi of 750 Okinawa residents, nearly 70% of those responding said they felt uneasy about the bases. And 80% said the bases should be phased out.

That underlying anxiety crystallized in a major peaceful protest in June, when more than 18,000 people, braving heavy rain, formed a human chain around the 5,000-acre U.S. Kadena Air Base in central Okinawa Island. A few white headbands worn by the demonstrators remain tied to the barbed wire fence around the base, fluttering in the wind amid the roar of fighter planes.

The bases brought in about $111 million to the prefecture in 1985, the third-largest source of income after public funds and tourism.

Tourism Growing

"People can't oppose the bases because of the money," said Setsuko Inafuku, a tour guide at Kadena. She said she was born in a bomb shelter here toward the end of the war and vehemently opposes the military presence. She works at Kadena to earn a living, she said, but "I definitely think twice about it."

The local government hopes that tourism, which overtook the bases as the major source of income in the mid-1970s, will continue to grow.

The number of tourists coming to the islands has jumped tenfold in recent years, to more than 2 million. Tourism declined last year when the strong yen lured Japanese abroad. But Okinawans hope to reshape their islands into a tourist hub of Asia, which would stimulate other local industries as well.

"We're approaching this with a long-term view," said Seiichi Higa, deputy director of the Okinawa prefectural office's Development and Planning Division. "We're going to build more hotels up to international standards and increase air routes."

Farm Development

The prefecture must develop its farming--now mainly sugar-cane, vegetable and pineapple cultivation--to include more food processing to provide goods for the resorts, Higa said.

He added that a new airport on southern Ishigaki Island is crucial to accommodate big commercial jetliners.

But protests by the residents in the tiny village of Shiraho, on the eastern shoreline, have pushed back plans to open the airport this year by at least five years.

Kiyoshi Mukaezato, head of the local protest movement, maintains that plans for about 247 acres of landfill for the runway will destroy the fish and seaweed supply for the area's farmers and fishermen.

'We Must Win'

"Because we can't live on farming alone, we go to the sea to get clams," said the soft-spoken farmer, who has been arrested twice during protests. "We're fighting for a right to live. We must win, because if we lose it'll mean it's easy to crush local residents."

He and other foes say the landfill will bury a large colony of coral, including the rare blue coral, Heliopora coerulea, which are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Fisherman Yonaha goes out every morning in his small boat to reap the riches of schools of shimmering fish amid jungle-like fields of multicolored coral.

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