Saipan — Before the U.S. invasion of the NMI in 1944, the islands had a booming economy fueled by Japanese investments — and imported labor. By 1940, according to Micronesian historian and scholar, Father Francis X. Hezel, there were about 85,000 Japanese in the NMI and the rest of the Japanese mandated islands (now known as the Freely Associated States). “Eighty percent of the total labor force in the islands was Japanese or Okinawan,” Father Hezel added.
A 1966 economic report commissioned by the U.S. noted that the Japanese-era economy benefited many islanders considerably. They “enjoyed a wider variety of goods and services, greater sources of income, and greater opportunities to develop abilities, and to get jobs than they ever experienced before or, in many instances, since.” On the major islands, most of the people “became accustomed to manufactured and processed goods, including tools, chemicals, foods, utensils, equipment, materials, machinery, fuels, power, toiletries and cosmetics, and many kinds of services, including medical and health, education, sanitation, transportation, communications, and restaurants, retail stores, and movies. In fact, the [islanders] located near the centers of activity generally had access to most of the kinds of goods and services available to the small-town farmer or fisherman in the industrialized nations of the world during the 1930s.”
Then came the war — and desolation.
With the U.S. military in charge of the islands, the “goods and services and sources of income which many [locals] had enjoyed during the Japanese period ceased to exist.” On Saipan, local civilians were concentrated in temporary quarters. “They were severely restricted, poorly fed and assigned jobs by the military commanders. These people did not know the status of their real property and owned little other than the old clothes which they wore. They had no way of fully supporting themselves. Their pre-war sources of income and goods had vanished, and although they were paid for their work as laborers and domestics, the wages were low and many goods were either not available or were priced beyond their power to buy. Most foodstuff were “issued” and consisted mainly of rice, flour, sugar, salt and canned meats. Clothing, utensils, tools, livestock were unobtainable.
A 1966 economic report commissioned by the U.S. noted that the Japanese-era economy benefited many islanders considerably. They “enjoyed a wider variety of goods and services, greater sources of income, and greater opportunities to develop abilities, and to get jobs than they ever experienced before or, in many instances, since.”
In the [Northern] Marianas the people complained that the only items of clothing available were discarded G.I. uniforms, but in most other places not even this source of clothing was available… [T]he shock of change from the pre-war condition was great... The thriving and prosperous agricultural and industrial enterprises on Saipan, including the major sugar industry, commercial fishing, and many other enterprises, and most of the people, were gone… Not only the businesses and the people, but most of the infrastructure — the roads and causeways, community facilities, electric and water systems, harbor and other facilities — were gone... The physical structure of the former economy had been destroyed. Worse still, the entrepreneurs, capital, managers, supervisors, technicians and almost all of the labor were no longer available. Thus, all of the elements which had conceived, financed, and operated the economic units suddenly disappeared.”