Chatan resort town thrives as symbol of Okinawa’s growth, 50 years after its reversion

Devastated by the Battle of Okinawa in the final stages of World War II, Okinawa was placed under American occupation after the war. But the prefecture, which marks the 50th anniversary of his return to Japan on May 15, has since grown thanks to the efforts of its residents.

The town of Chatan has become a symbol of Okinawa’s growth, with the development of the American Village shopping and entertainment complex on its west coast.

The site where the complex now stands housed US military installations, including Hamby Airfield. At the time of reversion, Chatan – then a village – drew up a “village development plan” which became a community development vision, based on the rehabilitation of the public waterfront after the return of some land used by the American army.

Yoshimitsu Higa, 83, who led the planning of the development project from 1972 under then-mayor Seisho Higa, said the reclaimed area eventually became a themed resort of the United States after many twists and turns.

During the Battle of Okinawa, the entire village was seized by the US Army. Then, after the war, the American military installations remained on the west side of the village, which was flat and easy to use.

Military land occupied 65% of the village, and tertiary industry accounted for 86% of the town’s total workforce – the majority working for military-related installations.

As part of the development plan, the village said the riverfront area should be developed through extensive rehabilitation and development along National Highway 58 should focus on commerce, industry and tourism.

In an effort to transform the village from a grassroots-dependent to a self-sustaining economy, it was determined that reclamation was needed to create a large-scale commercial area. Most of the land used by the US military was originally privately owned.

The development plan was drawn up in 1973, and local leaders and the landowners’ association used it to repeatedly demand the return of land in negotiations with the central government.

“I think we were persuasive with this plan because it clearly showed a specific view of development and where local communities were divided by the US military presence,” Yoshimitsu Higa said.

It was in 1981, with the return of the Hamby aerodrome (approximately 38 hectares) and an adjoining shooting range (approximately 25 hectares), that an opportunity for development presented itself.

Yoshimitsu Higa, a former Chatan official, holds a copy of the city’s original development plan as he recalls the days of Okinawa’s return to Japan, during a March 24 interview. | OKINAWA TIME

Higa was involved in the post-return recovery project as head of the general affairs division under the administration of Mayor Masao Shimabukuro.

The city tried to ask the prefecture to use part of a reclaimed 49-hectare area as a resort site. But the prefectural government was not supportive, saying hotels in northern Okinawa already had an adequate supply of accommodation.

In 1985, the city applied to use the land as a residential site. Once approval was granted, the land was turned into a resort site on the grounds that the residential areas were secured with the land returned to military use. The reclamation was completed in 1987, but development did not go as planned.

Initially, about 11 hectares of the resort land was allocated to be sold to a developer for about 6.66 billion yen. The plan was to build a theme park at a total cost of 57 billion yen, but the collapse of the economic bubble put a stop to the project.

The cost of the reclamation had been around 5.97 billion yen, and the city’s payments to a prefecture-run land development company quickly ballooned to 1 million yen a day in interest alone. .

Alarmed by a possible collapse of the city’s finances, then-mayor Choichi Hentona ordered Higa, who was then deputy mayor, to lead a new office created to involve businesses in the city’s development project. .

Higa traveled all over the country, and through discussions with management consultants, the town eventually came up with the idea of ​​building an American town-themed resort.

The concept of building the Mihama Town Resort American Village has met with some opposition due to some local residents’ negative feelings towards American bases. But city officials promoted the idea as likely to have a big impact on attracting visitors because there were no other resort facilities in Japan with an American theme.

The city solicited companies to participate in the project and commissioned a major commercial company to oversee its development. The opening of the Mihama 7Plex movie theater complex added momentum and land sales were accelerated.

The municipality also set up a large free car park, at the time the only one in the prefecture. With a capacity of 1,500 cars, the operator of the facility was entrusted with the costs of maintaining and managing the parking lot.

“There were a lot of ups and downs, but I think we pulled it off,” Higa said.

Companies that joined the American Village project further developed the area.

Okuhara Shoji, a Chatan-based trading company that imports sundries and clothing, won a bid for the 3.3-hectare site which had been used by the then Social Insurance Agency as a recreational facility , which closed in 2008. Along with several other businesses, Okuhara Shoji opened the Depot Island business facility in 2010.

Depot Island and its related facilities house approximately 150 tenants, including stores, restaurants and hotels. The site was raised to provide an ocean view and power lines were buried. To facilitate the movement of visitors, a road inside the site and a promenade along the sea have also been developed.

“Depot Island is a city. The concept is a world-class urban resort,” said property manager Chojun Higa, 64. It is determined to attract more visitors in cooperation with other municipalities and make the whole city of Chatan a world-class resort by developing not only Mihama Beach, but also nearby Miyagi and Araha Beaches.

Rising land prices

As Okinawa’s economy has grown, investment from outside the prefecture and foreigners has also increased. Land prices in Okinawa Prefecture have risen for nine consecutive years, according to the latest statistics released in March by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation and Tourism.

Chatan Mayor Masashi Toguchi talks about the city's economic development and challenges during an interview on April 4.  |  OKINAWA TIME
Chatan Mayor Masashi Toguchi talks about the city’s economic development and challenges during an interview on April 4. | OKINAWA TIME

Takeshi Hamamoto, 56, a real estate appraiser and head of the ministry’s Okinawa subcommittee for land price appraisals, said the price hike reflects expectations for economic growth and future development in Okinawa. “Land prices are rising as commercial facilities have been built and more people want to live there,” Hamamoto said, adding that Chatan was symbolic of this trend.

Some people buy condominiums in Okinawa Prefecture for investment purposes, as they do in Tokyo and other urban areas, and Chatan is particularly popular, Hamamoto said. “Some condos in Chatan are selling for more per tsubo (about 3.3 square meters) than those in the Naha redevelopment area,” he added.

Chatan Mayor Masashi Toguchi, 42, points out that the original development plan proposed at the time of Okinawa’s reversion was “the starting point for today’s prosperity”. He notes that the development plan worked because it focused on promoting the tourism industry – taking advantage of the city’s location, which sits on the “navel” of Okinawa Island.

The city’s finances have been strengthened by increased property tax revenue from receptor businesses. On the other hand, Toguchi says the city faces a relatively low population problem compared to available housing.

“Condominium prices have gone up with land prices, and apartment rents are also high,” Toguchi said, adding that housing in Chatan is limited because about 52% of the city is still used by US bases.

He explained that second home ownership has grown not just as the West Side has developed, but as the entire town has become a brand. Previously, this was limited to people from other prefectures. But now some Okinawans from out of town are also in the market, making life difficult for locals, he said.

Considering the number of houses and apartments in the city, “the population could well be 40,000,” says Toguchi. But the city’s population has remained in the 28,000 to 29,000 range for the past 10 years. At the end of February, the population stood at 28,930.

“The prefectural government cannot and will not stop the principle of the market. It is difficult to balance development and improving the living environment,” Toguchi said.

Besides securing city-owned land, the mayor expressed his intention to make other improvements to the quality of life in the city, including improving education, welfare, and other social provisions.

This section features Okinawan topics and issues covered by The Okinawa Times, a major newspaper in the prefecture. The original article was published on April 10.

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