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NAHA, Okinawa — While many Okinawans, including leading politicians, claim the U.S. military bases here are a “burden,” entrepreneurs are excited about bases as a source of revenue.

That was readily apparent Wednesday when about 300 people from more than 290 Okinawan companies and stores attended a seminar on how to get lucrative contracts from the U.S. military. The seminar, organized by Naha City and the Naha City Chamber of Commerce, was designed to assist local businesses to become successful base contractors.

The large turnout surprised Naha City officials.

“Initially, we had expected only about 100 people,” said Satoru Uehara, director of the Employment Office for Naha City’s Business and Tourism Division.

A finding from a recent study by the Naha City Chamber of Commerce prompted the city to hold the seminar. The study showed that the U.S. military spends about about $524 million outsourcing to civilian contractors for goods and services.

“And of that, less than 20 percent goes to Okinawan companies, while the rest goes to companies from the Japanese mainland,” Uehara said.

Okinawan companies miss out on much of the business because of a lack of information and technical skills required to bid for contracts, he added.

“There are a variety of jobs that the U.S. military contracts to off-base companies besides construction, such as transportation, maintenance, insurance and travel agency services,” he said, noting that many Okinawans still have mixed feelings about doing business with the military.

“However, a majority of the jobs — worth 60 billion yen — are flowing out of Okinawa each year,” he said. “We must face up to this fact and take advantage of it.”

According to statistics released by the Okinawa prefectural government, the U.S. military’s economic contribution to the prefecture was about $1.73 billion in 2001, 5.1 percent of the gross prefectural revenue. About a third of that represented contracts for goods and services. The rest was from spending by servicemembers and their families in the local community, the salaries of Okinawans employed on the bases and rent paid to owners of base property.

People from large construction firms to the smallest retailer listened to guest speakers in a large hall at the Okinawa Industrial Support Center building, located near Naha Airport in Naha.

“Much attention has been paid to the heavy burden of vast military presence,” Zenki Nakazato, senior director of the Naha City Chamber, said in his speech. “However, it is very regretful that we have not put our wisdom and efforts to utilize it as a great business resource. Our research found that more than 80 percent of Okinawan companies are interested in doing business with the military, but not many of them know even how or where to start.”

A three-phase seminar is scheduled through the summer to give the Okinawan businesses tips on the bidding procedures for military contracts.

John Cotton, an American business consultant and a seminar keynote speaker, said the time is opportune for local businesses.

“The U.S. military is making efforts to increase the number of contracts,” he said following the seminar. “This is a good chance for them to get in, and we want more jobs for Okinawan companies. We can give them a road map on how to do business on bases.”

Kazuko Kaneshima, executive director of an office equipment company in Naha, said she was glad she attended the seminar.

“In the past, we were offered a bid for office supplies at a military contracting office,” she said. But she was baffled by the procedures necessary to make a bid and reluctantly opted out.

For Toru Nakaishi, owner of three clothing stores on Kokusai Street in Naha, the seminar was encouraging. He said he hoped to sell his company’s original designs on the bases.

“The market of 50,000 consumers is certainly attractive,” he said.


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