50 years after returning to Japan, the gap remains between Okinawa and the rest of the country

Nearly half a century after returning to Japan in 1972, Okinawa Prefecture still lags behind the rest of the country in income, welfare and other areas, while seeing substantial progress in infrastructure development.

The southernmost prefecture, site of grueling ground battles in the final days of World War II, was occupied by the United States from 1945 to 1972. It will mark the 50th anniversary of its return to Japan on May 15 this year .

Since the enactment of the Okinawa Special Development Law in 1972, the central government has taken various measures to correct the disparities between the prefecture and the rest of the country.

On Thursday, parliament passed a bill to extend the government’s Okinawa development program for another 10 years, emphasizing efforts to address child poverty and other problems in Okinawa.

Earlier in the week, a ceremony was held to commemorate the second anniversary of the opening of Naha Airport’s second runway in the prefectural capital.

The airport is an “important base for measures under Okinawa’s development program,” Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki said at the ceremony.

Thanks to the development of the airport, as well as the increase in the number of foreign visitors to Japan, the number of tourists from outside the prefecture has increased from 440,000 in 1972 to more than 10 million in 2019.

Under the development program, Okinawa assumed only about 5% of the cost of the second runway project, well below a third for such projects elsewhere in the country.

Furthermore, the share of paved roads in the prefecture has exceeded the national average, and the construction of dams has significantly improved the water situation in the prefecture, which has often suffered from water supply reductions or suspensions. The prefecture’s main island has avoided water supply restrictions since 1994.

Okinawa’s infrastructure development is an “achievement” of the government’s development agenda, said Shigeharu Miyahira, an economics professor at Meio University in Okinawa.

However, there are still disparities to be corrected between the prefecture and the rest of the country in terms of income, well-being and others.

Among the country’s 47 prefectures, Okinawa’s average per capita income remains at its lowest since fiscal 1989 and the prefecture’s child poverty rate stands at 29.9%, more than double the national average. .

Kazuhiro Miyagi, professor of economics at Okinawa International University, pointed out that efforts have focused on infrastructure and other projects covered by generous grants. “While welfare and other measures have been left behind, poverty emerges as a challenge,” he said.

The emphasis on infrastructure and other physical projects has been corrected since grants became available for other matters under a new system introduced in FY 2012.

These grants, however, have continued to be cut since fiscal year 2015, when a rift between the national government and the prefecture was revealed over basic issues in the United States.

Miyagi stressed the need for a system that gives the prefecture more discretion over grants.

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