THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
October 8, 2020 at 18:15 JST
Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki enters the prime minister’s office building in Tokyo to meet Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Oct. 7. (Kotaro Ebara)
As chief Cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga approached Okinawa Prefecture by frequently using both carrots and sticks.
Doubling as the minister in charge of easing Okinawa’s burdens from hosting U.S. military bases, Suga rewarded local officials who toed the central government’s policy line and punished those who did not by yanking economic aid.
This approach is nothing new from the central government. It is often employed when it tries to steer local officials into whichever direction it wants.
But Suga’s use of it in connection with the planned relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from Ginowan to Nago, both located within the prefecture, has been described as “blatant,” compared with the preceding administrations.
Now with Suga as prime minister, Okinawan prefectural officials are bracing for tougher times ahead.
When Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki requested continued financial assistance to his prefecture in Tokyo on Oct. 7, the prime minister reportedly said, “Let’s continue to work together.”
The meeting, which lasted only five minutes, was the first one for the two leaders since Suga became prime minister. It was called at Okinawa's request.
COOPERATION BOOSTS LOCAL FUNDING
Each prefectural government can ask the central government for funds to promote local regions.
But the sum for Okinawa Prefecture has been cut over the years after Okinawa governors began opposing the relocation of the Futenma facility within the prefecture, which already hosts 70 percent of the U.S. military installations in Japan.
In 2013, then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged to provide somewhere between 300 billion yen ($2.8 billion) and 400 billion yen annually through fiscal 2021.
The gesture was meant to reward then Governor Hirokazu Nakaima for approving the central government’s project to reclaim land off the Henoko district of Nago for construction of a facility that will take over Futenma’s functions.
The economic package stood at 350 billion yen for fiscal 2014.
But then Takeshi Onaga, a staunch opponent of relocating the base within the prefecture, replaced Nakaima as governor in the election in 2014. The package began to shrink.
It was set at 301 billion yen annually for three years starting in fiscal 2018--a record low.
In the economic package, lump-sum grants, which are funds the prefectural and municipal governments can use without strings attached, saw a particularly steep reduction.
Those grants totaled only 101.4 billion yen in fiscal 2020, down by more than 70 billion yen from fiscal 2014.
In contrast, the central government set up a new program in fiscal 2019 that directly provides grants to Okinawan municipalities, an apparent attempt to drive a wedge between municipalities and the prefectural government over the U.S. base issue.
In the budget to be compiled by the central government for fiscal 2021, 8.5 billion yen is being set aside for the program.
Of all the Okinawan municipalities, the central government has given special treatment to Nago, with the provision of ample subsidies and grants under the name of the U.S. base relocation project.
The central government went so far as to offer three community associations in the Henoko district and its neighborhood in Nago hundreds of millions of yen in subsidies between fiscal 2015 and fiscal 2017. It coincided with when the Nago mayor in opposition to the base project was in office.
Those community associations were not even public bodies, raising questions about the legitimacy of providing them with taxpayer money.
The funding offers to those associations ended after a candidate siding with the central government over the U.S. base issue triumphed in the mayoral election in 2018.
And the central government resumed providing grants to the Nago city government in connection with the U.S. base project, which had been suspended while the anti-project mayor was in power.
These all too conspicuous developments drove home the point that local governments cooperating with the central government can benefit financially.
OKINAWA PREFECTURE AT CRITICAL JUNCTURE
The current 10-year program for Okinawa’s development will expire in late fiscal 2021. The program has been running since the prefecture’s return to Japanese sovereignty in 1972 from U.S. military rule.
Now both sides need to work on a blueprint for the next 10-year program.
A senior official at the prime minister’s office said that Tokyo will not do anything “blatant.”
But prefectural officials are concerned.
“We are wondering what additional steps the central government will take to win over local governments to its side and divide the prefecture,” one of the officials said.
After the meeting with Suga, Tamaki stressed the importance of the two sides engaging in full discussions over whatever issues Okinawa faces, including the U.S. bases, financial assistance and development programs.
“Our thought is that problems should be resolved through extensive talks between Okinawa and the central government,” the governor said.
(This article was written by Shinichi Fujiwara and Ryo Aibara.)
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