Can Okinawa Become an Entertainment Hub?

Hiroshi Osaki P

A leading Japanese talent agency looks to launch a performing arts school on land now used by the U.S. military.

Japanese talent agency powerhouse Yoshimoto Kogyo has ambitious plans to transform Okinawa into an Asian entertainment hub and create an industry that can help sustain the island’s economy and reduce its dependence on the U.S. military bases that occupy nearly a fifth of its land.

Japan’s southernmost island is host to around three-quarters of the U.S. military forces stationed in Japan, a burden that many locals would like to see reduced through a relocation of some facilities to other parts of Japan or overseas. However, even those who oppose the military presence acknowledge the amount of money it brings to an island economy that has few other industries bar tourism.

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Hiroshi Osaki, the affable CEO of Yoshimoto Kogyo, Japan’s biggest agency, is the man with a vision to revitalize Okinawa through the entertainment business.

“It’s like starting something from nothing in the desert, the way Las Vegas was built. There are a lot of American bases on Okinawa, so the ideal situation would be to get one of them returned quickly and use that land to build the facilities necessary to turn Okinawa into an entertainment island,” says Osaki.

Inspired by a trip to Cannes Film Festival in 2007 with Hitoshi Matsumoto, a Yoshimoto Kogyo comedian and TV talent whose directorial debut Big Man Japan was screened there, Osaki decided to start the Okinawa International Movie Festival (OIMF). The fifth edition of the festival will run from March 23 to 30, in and around Ginowan City, which is also the location of the Futenma U.S. air base. The base is at the center of an ongoing controversy about relocating the thousands of Marines stationed there out of the crowded residential area.  

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Kogyo has won the approval of the local government to begin work on a joint Ginowan City Entertainment Village project, beginning with a summer school this year for aspiring performers and artists. The initial plan will include courses run in conjunction with the Second City comedy troupe, which has produced many of America’s top comedians in recent decades. 

The plan calls for a permanent, purpose-built entertainment school and complex to be built on land currently occupied by the U.S. military, once it has been returned to Japan.

“What we are really aiming at is to see young creative people from Japan and around Asia come and live, learn and work together in Okinawa, and then send what they’ve made back out across the region,” says Osaki. “That would put smiles on faces and money in people’s pockets.”