Okinawa has a surprisingly large population (about 1.4 million people), and there are very few things that you can get on mainland Japan that you can’t obtain in Okinawa. In fact, Okinawa is likely more urban than most people expect, but of course there are still plenty of rural areas. Okinawa is the southernmost and westernmost of Japan’s 47 prefectures. Consisting of a chain of over 160 islands that stretch between Japan and Taiwan, it is geographically and culturally quite distinct from the rest of the country.
Okinawa is famous for its tropical climate, beautiful beaches and ocean, and distinct traditional culture. Okinawa’s most famous cultural export is probably karate (you know, Mr. Miyagi?), but other Okinawan traditions include eisa dancing, sanshin (Okinawan banjo, and ancestor of the Japanese shamisen), bingata (stencil-dyed fabrics), glass working, goya chanpuru – a stir-fry made with goya, a bitter but delicious (this is debatable!) Okinawan vegetable – and awamori – a potent spirit distilled from Thai rice. If you want to experience some of these for yourself, there are plenty of opportunities when you get here. Excited yet? You should be!
History and Politics
Long ago, Okinawa was an independent nation known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, and over time grew to be a trading hub for Southeast Asia, including China and Japan. As a result, the Ryukyu Kingdom had an abundance of cultural and material wealth during its most prosperous years.
In the early 17th century Japan came and decided it was going to own Okinawa. When the Meiji reforms hit in the late 19th century, Japan attempted to formally incorporate the territory as a prefecture of the newly-formed nation state.
The Battle of Okinawa was the last major battle of World War II. The islands were treated as a sacrificial pawn by Japan’s military elite in order to buy time to prepare the mainland’s defense. During the battle, one-third of the island’s population was wiped out due to disease, hunger, and violence dealt by combatants on both sides of the conflict.
From 1945-1972, Okinawa was the property of America, with a status similar to Puerto Rico during the Cold War.
Okinawa reverted to Japanese control during a tumultuous period in 1972. The American military presence stayed. As a result, many Okinawans feel manipulated and resentful of the many forces interfering with their sovereignty and self-determination.
Deployment of Osprey aircraft: Ospreys are a new form of helicopter being used by the Marines stationed here. Many Okinawans are concerned by their safety record, and worry about their deployment in bases surrounded by crowded civilian areas. It is currently one of the most hotly contested current events here.
Relocation of bases: General sentiment amongst Okinawans is that they want the American military presence reduced if not removed entirely from the island. Although some people feel differently, they are by far the minority voice. There have been many plans for the relocation of bases, but they are often contested, and end up stalled by diplomatic and bureaucratic processes.
Development of the Henoko area: Henoko is an area in the north that is currently under development to create a new American military base. Many of the proposed relocation plans for the American military say that developing Henoko will allow the military to have a reduced presence, far removed from metropolitan areas. Some Okinawans feel that this is just a land grab and will in the end result in an increased military presence. It is currently a highly contested issue.
Again, you are largely able to ignore all of this if you want to, but unless you make an active attempt to do so, it is probably going to intrude somehow at some point. Please remember that we are contractually forbidden to get involved with political groups, and that if you do so, it could be grounds for your dismissal.
In addition, when you engage in private conversation, remember that as JETs we aren’t just normal foreigners over here. We represent not just ourselves but also our home countries, the JET Program, and the Prefectural government. Anything you say will reflect on all of those institutions and your opinions will shape the feelings of Okinawans towards all of them. It is possible that you could be dismissed for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Please be aware of the possible consequences of your actions.
Standard Japanese is the language most widely spoken in Okinawa. Though originally various Okinawan languages were spoken on the Okinawan islands, the Japanese imposed a rigid campaign of assimilation after annexing the Ryukyu Kingdom. Eradication of the Okinawan languages and replacement with the Japanese language was a central part of the campaign. The Okinawan languages are related to Japanese, but they are by no means mutually intelligible.
Today, almost everyone on mainland Okinawa can speak standard Japanese, though there are regional words and slight grammatical variations particular to Okinawa. That said, many people, especially Okinawans over 60, can also speak what is widely referred to as “hōgen”, or Okinawan dialect. In reality, what they are speaking is not a dialect of Japanese, but a language unique to Okinawa. As a group, the languages spoken in Okinawa are commonly referred to as Uchināguchi. The Okinawan languages are a part of the Japonic language family along with Japanese. Referring to them as “hōgen” was a political move by the Japanese Empire that started during World War II as part of a plan to build support for the idea of monoculturalism. The idea that the languages spoken in Okinawa are dialects has continued to the present day, but recently there has been a movement growing in Okinawa to change this belief.
Unfortunately, the number of people who can actually converse fluently in any of the Okinawan languages is decreasing rapidly, and all forms of Uchināguchi spoken in Okinawa are considered endangered. Unless in the rare case that they cannot speak Japanese or you look like a person from Okinawa, almost no one will address you in Uchināguchi. They are mindful of the fact that you are foreign and will be happy if you are learning any Japanese at all!
There is no need for you to worry about learning any Uchināguchi before you come, but inserting a greeting or an Uchināguchi word that you have learned when speaking to Okinawans will most likely be greatly received!
|Yutashiku unigeesabira||Yoroshiku onegaishimasu (lit. Please treat me favorably)|
|Nifee debiru||Thank you|
|Ichariba choodee||Once we meet, we are brothers (proverb)|
The average temperature in Okinawa is 22 degrees Celsius (72 degrees Fahrenheit). It is very humid here. In the mid-summer months, especially July and August, it is extremely hot. In winter, the temperature does not fall below about 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees F). That said, for a few months in the winter (Jan, Feb) Okinawa can get fairly cold because of strong Northerly winds whipping over the ocean and frequent cloudy days. Okinawa is the windiest prefecture in Japan. If and when the wind dies down and the sun comes out, it can be very warm even in winter, but that often seems to be the exception rather than the rule. May and June is the rainy season. Typhoon season starts in June and finishes at the end of November.
Depending on what climate you are most accustomed to, the weather in Okinawa can be fairly pleasant, or extremely uncomfortable. The humidity is often very uncomfortable for people who are not used to high levels of moisture in the air. Don’t expect your hair to stay straight for longer than two minutes after straightening it, girls! The extreme summer heat will be difficult for you if your homeland does not have similar heat. That said, most JETs do have air conditioners. If you have to buy a new AC unit, it might cost about ¥50,000 ($500) ($100 installation, $400 AC).
Some schools have AC and some do not. High schools are more likely to have AC than elementary or junior highs. If there is AC in your school, it might only be in the teachers’ room, or perhaps in both student and teachers’ rooms. The hallways will never be air-conditioned.
Central heating is nonexistent in Okinawa. Many JETs own a small electric heater to use in the winter months. Though the temperatures do not go down past 50 degrees F/10 degrees C, Japanese buildings are not built with insulation, so it does get chilly inside.
A Prefecture of “Best” and “Worst”
Okinawa has a way of making national news headlines, either for its best-in-the-nation activities, or worse, being the worst in Japan.
A new book published by Okinawa Prefecture shows Okinawa one of Japan’s 47 prefectures has scored at the top of the lists in 17 categories, while finishing dead last in another 31. A total of 11 fields involving 165 individual subjects was studied.
Okinawa ranks best in the nation in longevity, taking the crown for having the most people living to be 100 years of age or older. At the other extreme, Okinawa’s earned income average is the worst, with local salaries about 70% of the nation’s average.
Okinawans borrow more money than anywhere else in Japan, another dubious first place ranking. The prefecture population is increasing at the highest rate in the country, another best ranking, as is the ratio of healthy citizens compared to those sick. Okinawa’s cancer rate, cerebral illnesses or cerebral strokes, or cerebral thrombosis, was the lowest in the nation, another top ranking.
The really bad statistics focused on industry and the economy. There are no factories in Okinawa, and the number of business bankruptcies tops the national charts. Youngsters here are not studies oriented, a fact reflected in the last place rankings on kids moving on to high school and college. The unemployment rate follows along with the schools statistics, as many boys and girls try moving into the business world after graduating junior high school. They don’t get jobs, leading to the worst unemployment rate in Japan. Another negative is saving money. Okinawans don’t. Back to the positive, Okinawan women are strong, and the number of female civil service workers is second best in Japan, while the number in the Prefecture Assembly ranks 7th.
One other mixed statistic; Okinawans love to channel themselves into leisure activities, and that costs money. Okinawans ranked 19th in spending money, according to the publication.
Cultural Diversity in Okinawa
People imagine Japan to be culturally homogeneous. Okinawa is much more culturally diverse than mainland Japan for several reasons. First, the Ryukyu Kingdom’s aforementioned prosperity was a product of international trade whereas Japan maintained a strict isolationist policy for several centuries. One off-shoot of the Ryukyu Kingdom’s internationality is that Okinawans are historically more genetically diverse than Japanese. In fact, Japanese people often superficially mistake Okinawans on mainland Japan as Taiwanese or Filipino individuals.
Second, for various reasons, Okinawa was had the highest emigration rate of Japan’s prefectures in the last century. Recently, many second or third generation Okinawans have returned to the island from their homes in South America, Asia, Hawaii, etc., creating a veritable chanpuru of cultures in the small prefecture. Do you want Argentinean food? Peruvian food? Mexican or Indian or Thai food? You can find restaurants serving all of these on the Okinawa mainland. Do you like salsa dancing, want to practice your German or Spanish? No problem, there are several Latin dance clubs and foreign language speaking communities here.
Third, close contact with American culture due to 27 years of occupation and continued military presence has exposed many Okinawans to a large dose of American culture. (Okinawa was American territory until 1972 – Okinawans needed a passport to go to mainland Japan!) For example, Okinawan vocabulary boasts a higher rate of English loan words as compared to mainland Japanese. Okinawans may know more about US holidays or foods than mainland Japanese people would as bases are frequently opened to the public for holiday celebrations, and American oriented shops sell popular items like apple pie and turkey on Thanksgiving.
U.S. Military in Okinawa
Okinawa is home to 55 000 US military personnel and their families. Okinawa Prefecture (the prefecture with the 4th smallest land area in Japan) hosts 75% of the US military bases in the entire nation of Japan that are exclusively used by US Forces (and not in conjunction with the Japanese Self Defense Forces). After WWII, Okinawa was a U.S. Territory for 27 years. The U.S. dollar was the official currency and Okinawans needed passports to travel to mainland Japan and vice versa. Okinawa reverted to Japanese control in 1972, but under a special agreement with the mainland Japanese government, a very large military presence has been allowed to remain. Americans refer to Okinawa as the “keystone of the Pacific”. Many of the soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War were flown in and out of Okinawa, as are those in Iraq today.
Many Okinawans have voiced opposition to the bases for decades, and there is an ongoing struggle to remove the bases from Okinawa. Okinawa also happens to be the poorest of Japan’s 47 prefectures, and the bases formed a vital part of Okinawa’s post-war economy, though simultaneously rendered huge tracts of land largely inaccessible to public and private development. Okinawa has devised several economic development plans to replace the bases, but they would require cooperation and monetary support from the Japanese government, which may be difficult to acquire. Today, the younger generation (aka, your students) have no living memories of Okinawa without the US military presence, and often express ambiguous feelings toward the military presence.
More information: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/facility/okinawa.htm
Do I have to interact with the military?
Not if you don’t want to, no! If you live on Ishigaki, Miyako, or the outer islands you will never even have to see military or bases, since they are all on the mainland and a few close islands. Even on the Okinawan mainland itself, there are good chances that you will almost never see military if you live in the far north or south. You will still have special status as the local “gaikokujin” (foreigner).
Most of the military is concentrated in the middle section of the island. There, you will see them driving on the roads, possibly eating with you in restaurants or Starbucks, or walking down the street. But you will never be forced to talk to them or interact. For the most part they grocery shop on base, their kids go to school on base, and they go to the theaters on base. For JETs living in this area, people are probably used to seeing gaikokujin. There are certain cities that have a VERY heavy military presence: Yomitan, Chatan, or Okinawa City. Okinawans in these areas may assume that you are in some way related to the military upon first glance–which can be frustrating. As for nightlife, there are certain clubs where military personnel often go and others where they do not. Gate 2 street in Okinawa City, for example, is covered in military clubs and bars. You can avoid these or frequent them as you wish.
Can I go on base?
Yes. Bases are not difficult to access: if you have a friend who is in the military or who has a ‘base pass’ (a pass allowing you as non-military personnel to go on base with whoever you can shove in your car), you can go on base, regardless of whether or not you are American. A few JETs have base passes, but these are not easy to obtain unless you live way up north where there are less people and bases need a larger consumer pool. In the southern regions where bases and the population are very concentrated, it is not as easy to get a pass, though you can always go on with a friend who is military personnel.
Reasons you might want to go on base: to go to the movies ($3.50 on base, about $15 at a Japanese theater), to buy shoes and clothing in sizes unavailable to you in Japanese stores, to borrow English books from the library (through your authorized friend), to use free wireless Internet, to buy American snack foods, American products, American fashion magazines, to eat at Taco Bell/Subway/Applebees, etc. That said, there is not a complete lack of American food and culture off of the base. A&W, Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s run rampant across the island. Tons of western foods, snacks, and products will be awaiting you in the larger Japanese grocery stores. Many JETs never go on base, and couldn’t care less. This is Japan after all…
(FYI: even if you are on base with a friend or have your own base pass, you are never allowed in the grocery stores on base. The prices at military grocery stores are subsidized by the US government, and are thus substantially lower than in America itself. That’s why no one else is allowed to shop there.)
Do more Okinawans speak English than mainland Japan?
Not really. The US never attempted to replace Japanese with English during the occupation. So just because there are over 50,000 Americans in Okinawa, does not mean that everyone speaks English. Of course in areas concentrated with military bases, there are many Japanese people who speak English (at least well enough to perform all of their job functions) working in the service industry.
However, in rural parts of Okinawa or for anyone who doesn’t come into contact with military on a regular basis, English is not commonly spoken.
Winter season (late December – end of February)
- Cold! Because of strong winds + poor home insulation
- Winter break – take some additional nenkyuu and travel or visit family (be sure to bring back some omiyage)
- Come back for some New Year’s nabe parties w/ co-workers and friends, when you gather around a pot and each share in the cooking of nabe, a japanese stew.
- In Okinawa and mainland Japan, people give each other New Years cards (年賀状 ねんがじょう nengajou), and children get money in special envelopes (お年玉 おとしだま otoshi dama). Friends and co-workers may ask for your address in order to send you a card as well. If you are lucky enough to receive one, it is a nice gesture to send a reply.
- By the end of January, you would’ve decided whether you are re-contracting or returning to your home country.
- Okinawa boasts the earliest cherry blossoms. They are darker in color compared to mainland Japan’s cherry blossoms. Go see them in Nago in late January or Early February.
- In February, Hokkaido has its annual snow festival (雪祭り ゆきまつり yuki matsuri), which showcases some really impressive snow and ice sculptures. It’s worth taking some nenkyuu to fly to mainland Japan to check it out!
- Whale Watching season also happens in February. Go to Zamami!
- Okinawa City Marathon – Late February. Run Forrest Run!
Spring season (early march – end of April)
- Good weather! one of the best times to hit the coral-filled beaches
- Triathlon season (Ishigaki & Miyako triathlons)
- In March, Okiten – a super huge annual art exhibition happening in Urasoe. If you are an artist/into art, this is a must see, and why not plan on submitting your work there as well?
- In late April, enjoy Okinawa’s annual fireworks festival in Ginowan… on a beach!
Rainy Season (early May – early June)
- The strong winds (umbrella-breaking winds) from winter return to accompany bouts of heavy rain. Not everyday, but often, and the rain may last quite a long time when it comes.
- Golden Week – a string of Japanese holidays happening from the end of April to early May. A lot of ALTs travel during this time. Go with them!
- An unbeaten path in the many Golden Week travel options is to volunteer in Asia. Many options exist, including initiatives started by former JETs.
- One of the more prominent Golden Week holidays is Children’s day (kodomo no hi) on May 5th , when parents will let a kid be a kid for one day. This is the holiday when you may see koi fish banners. Each koi represents a different member of a person’s family.
- Cool May events: Iejima lily festival, Beach volleyball tournament in Miyako
- Also from May to June, a lot of Hari Dragon boat races will occur in Naha, Itoman, and elsewhere.
Typhoon Season (early June – early August)
- Typhoons are strong hurricanes. They usually last a day or two, and are characterized by really heavy winds and rain. Although technically, you are not completely safe until the end of November, the majority of them happen in July and early August.
- Typhoons are not that scary! Okinawa is super prepared for them. People know what to do, and buildings are equipped for them. So most are actually excited when typhoons come, and have typhoon parties!
- You will still need to be safe and take the necessary precautions for each typhoon (i.e. securing things on your balcony, collecting enough dry food to last you two days, etc). Also listen out for warnings and advice from the PA about upcoming typhoons.
- June 23rd is Irei no hi (the day to console the dead), and is considered an important Okinawan memorial holiday for the families who were lost in the Battle of Okinawa.
- Some ALTs take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) in early July. Remember that you have to register months in advance (April), and it is never too early to start studying for it.
- A fun festival, Tanabata, where you write your wish on colored paper and tie it to a tree, is celebrated in early July.
- An awesome event to go to in July is the Peaceful Love Rock Festival in Miyako. It is a big music extravaganza that even people from mainland Japan come to see. Many Okinawa JETs make plans to attend each year as well.
- JET Recontracting/Returner’s Ceremony in mid July – JETs who are staying sign their contracts. JETs who are returning to their home country give a speech in Japanese as punishment (j/k, it’s a chance to show their growth and improvement in the language :).
- Usually after the Recontracting/Returner’s Ceremony, the annual Gumball Rally occurs, a fun scavenger hunt between teams of ALTs on the island.
Summer season (late July – late September)
- The hottest and most humid time of year. Your work clothes may be noticeably drenched in sweat if you don’t wear an under shirt, but the under shirt will make you hotter. It’s a catch 22!
- The bugs will come out. Yabai!
- English contests (skit, debate, story, and speech) happen at different times of the year, but the big prefectural-wide ones happen predominantly in the summer and fall seasons. ALTs are often asked to prepare students and/or play the role of judges at the contests.
- In late July to mid August, there will be a couple of “English camps”, for which ALTs plan and host a day or two of English activities for students. These English camps may or may not take place on an actual campground. They also happen at schools and at the Education center.
- Summer is also a big time to travel. Go visit your family (if you haven’t during the winter break) or go on an awesome adventure. A lot of ALTs visit Mt. Fuji because it’s the only time you can hike the mountain (July to early August). This is highly recommended, as well as going to see the ancient forests of Yakushima, Kyushu.
- Unfortunately, some of us also have to say goodbye to Okinawa and each other during this period. Attend the annual farewell party to hang out with everybody for one more night at a pension, before you say the big sayoonara.
- At the end of August (following the lunar calendar), there will be Obon in Okinawa. It is a 3-day holiday, where it is believed a family’s ancestors revisit the family altar. It is usually accompanied by a lot of Eisa performance, before and after. Furthermore, Okinawans generally avoid the sea during Obon (they believe the spirits will attack you during this time, and consider it generally a bad omen).
- Awesome events: the 10,000 people Eisa Dance Parade and Yonabaru Matsuri/Tug of War in August, followed by the Orion Beer Festival, the All Okinawan Eisa Festival, and the All Okinawan Lion Dance Festival (shishimai) in September!
- ALT annual trip to an outer island in September. I highly recommend going! It’s fun, and one of the best events all year to bond and get to know all the new and old ALTs on the island.
Fall season (late September to late December)
- Fall, like Spring, has good mild weather. It’s great for snorkeling/diving in the ocean, and exploring various places outside.
- Cool Fall events: the Okinawa Craftwork Expo and the Naha tug of war in October, as well as the Itoman’s Peaceful Illumination Festival in December.
- Silver Week happens mid – late September. You might want to use this time to visit mainland Japan or an Okinawan outer island.
- If you are a cyclist, you may be interested in entering the Tour de Okinawa in November.
- The Skill Development Conference (SDC) happens at the Education Center in early November. Very useful workshops pertaining to teaching and life in Okinawa will be offered by your fellow ALTs. Besides being extremely informative and helpful, it is usually accompanied with a book exchange, a JET t-shirt design contest (the winning shirt can be bought at the conference), and a fun social event afterwards.
- In early December, you must (but not really) choose between the Naha marathon or taking the JLPT (register in September)… a rock and a hard place!
Places to Visit
- Shuri Castle is the major tourist stop in Okinawa, but is worth visiting at least once just to learn about some of Okinawa’s ancient history and see some unique architecture.
- Churaumi Aquarium is in the Guinness Book of World Records, and is a very good aquarium.
- Heiwakinen Peace Park and Museum is a national park dedicated to peace and remembrance of the atrocities of World War II. It includes a monument wall to the war dead of all nationalities from the Battle of Okinawa, as well as monuments from each prefecture on the site of the final and bloodiest resistance. The museum talks in depth about some history that doesn’t often get talked about and is worth seeing. Be warned: there is some graphic material.
- Okinawa World is a theme park designed around ancient Okinawan crafts. It is notable for the very large and beautiful limestone caverns that run underneath it, which are publicly accessible. If you make a reservation, you are able to go spelunking deeper during certain times of the year.
- Built for a television show, Murasaki Mura is a traditional Okinawan village that was later turned into a theme park also based on Okinawan crafts. Murasaki Mura is situated on a sprawling site and features interesting architecture perfect for an exploration.
- Ryukyu World is another Okinawan theme park village like the two above.
- Kodomo no Kuni (Children’s World) is aimed at younger folks, but has plenty to offer adults too, including a zoo and an imagination museum.
- Cape Hedo is the northernmost tip of Okinawa, featuring a lighthouse you can climb for a small fee. On a clear day, the island of Yoron (Kagoshima prefecture) can be seen. Although there isn’t much to do, it is very scenic.
- The Okinawa Prefectural Athletic Park is mostly convenient if you live nearby, but there are often festivals and sports games held here, and features some lovely coastline as well as an expansive area to walk around and enjoy.
- Okinawa has two professional sports teams, one for soccer (FC Ryukyu) and one for basketball (Ryukyu Golden Kings). In addition, there are a number of marathons held through the year, many of which attract world-class athletes–in particular, the Naha marathon held in the fall. Also, the Nippon Ham Fighters hold their winter practice sessions in Nago City.
- Okinawa ProResu is Okinawa-themed luchadore style of professional wrestling. Their main arena is in Naha, but they will often do shows around the island. Their shows are generally aimed at a younger audience. Regardless, they are amazing.
- There are many botanical gardens, as well as butterfly gardens. Some of them are attached to the other sites mentioned here and are as such not particularly difficult to find.
- If you want to see Okinawa’s beautiful ocean and beaches, there are tons of places. Be warned: “beach” means a roped off area meant for play and fun! If you’re looking for scenic views, you want to look for “kaigan” or “coastline,” which may or may not be directly advertised as such, or even open to the public. But since we live on a small island, it’s not too hard to find this kind of thing.
- If you’re interested in wildlife, ecology, hiking, diving, snorkeling or other nature-based pursuits, the places to go are either the north of the main island (Kunigami district) or any of the outer islands, many of which will specialize in one of these activities, but most of which will have all of these options available.
- If you like music, any major city will frequently have small concerts (known as “live house”). Especially popular in Okinawa are jazz, J-rock, and J-reggae. J-hiphop is also easily found. There are a number of music festivals that occur year round. Although most are not particularly accessible to foreigners, there are boundless opportunities for the dedicated music lover.
Menso~re to Okinawa!